The internet is becoming a mis-information highway lately, so it’s up to you to make sure your facts are actually...well...facts. We’ve come a long way as a society, particularly in the last decade, demystifying breast cancer and talking about it openly, but there are still some tenacious myths that need to be busted once and for all. Here are just a few of the worst offenders:
Family history of breast cancer is the biggest risk factor.
TRUTH: Less than 15% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have relevant family history of the disease. In other words, 85% of diagnosed women have no family history of the disease. In fact, the two risk factors most significant for developing breast cancer are simply being a woman and growing older. That being said, your risk for breast cancer is exponentially increased if you specifically inherited certain gene mutations. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have any diagnosed relatives, but especially a mother, daughter or sister, or someone under the age of 50. (And, while we’re on the subject of risk factors, there is no scientific evidence that antiperspirants, tight bras or cell phones cause breast cancer.)
I work out and eat right, so I probably won’t get breast cancer.
TRUTH: Cancer is an equal opportunity destroyer of cells, and sometimes cancerous cells that were once healthy inexplicably develop mutations over time and with age. While healthy behaviors may help to lower your risk for the disease, they don’t rule you out altogether. The fact is, even though there is evidence that being overweight and smoking are significant risk factors for cancer, sometimes doctors are unable to say why one person develops the disease and another one doesn’t – even if they share similar backgrounds and the same risk factors. All we can do is adopt the behaviors that will help tip the odds in our favor.
If I feel a lump in my breast, it must be cancer.
TRUTH: While you definitely should be doing self-exams regularly and should contact your physician right away if you detect a lump in your breast, the abnormality you feel could be due to myriad reasons and is most likely not cancerous. For example, cysts, fibrosis and dense breast tissue can all be benign reasons for the lump. At the same time, breast cancer doesn’t always create a lump, particularly in the early stages (when it’s the best time to catch it). That’s why and mammograms are vital tools for early diagnosis and treatment.
Mammograms are only for people in high-risk groups.
TRUTH: Mammograms provide a baseline for doctors to compare from test to test, which allows them to easily identify any irregularities in your images over time. The CDC recommends people at average risk for breast cancer should have the option to talk to their doctor and get a mammogram starting at age 40. Beginning at age 45, mammograms should occur yearly. At 55, those exams can be reduced to every other year for as long as the patient is healthy. (And while we’re busting myths, mammograms have come a long way and are no longer the painful, awkward tests they used to be. The benefits far outweigh the discomfort.)
There’s nothing I can do to prevent this disease, so why try?
TRUTH: It’s a fact that about 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. While it is frustrating not to know the exact risks and behaviors responsible, there is much that can be done to prevent the disease from progressing to advanced stages. Death rates for women over 50 who were diagnosed with breast cancer have decreased by 1% each year from 2013 to 2018. This hopeful statistic is believed to be largely the result of early detection (through regular exams and mammography) and advances in treatment.