If you’re reading this, you almost certainly fit one of two profiles: either you have breast cancer (or are a caregiver for someone who has it); or you’re afraid you have breast cancer. You guys with cancer, you’ve heard plenty from me over the years; continue to read if you like, but this post’s not aimed at you. This time, I’m writing to the cancer-free (but cancer-fearing) readers out there.
I spend time every day answering questions on this site’s Q & A page. There are questions from women with breast cancer inquiring about treatment options—asking for help deciding between a mastectomy and lumpectomy, or wondering whether to do chemo. There are questions from caregivers struggling to make sense of a diagnosis and treatment plan for their mom, daughter, sister, or wife. And there are women with cancer who simply need to reach out and connect, to hear from someone experiencing the same challenges they’re facing.
But the vast majority of questions come from women wondering if they have breast cancer—and panicking about it. The typical question will describe a symptom, and ask, “Is this cancer? Should I be afraid?” Almost all the time, I’m happy to be able to reply “What you’re describing doesn’t sound like cancer. But why not call your doctor and get it checked out, just to set your mind at ease?” I imagine (I hope) most of these women do just that—call the doctor, get checked out, and go on with their lives.
Still, if you suddenly notice a change in your breast or breasts, you’re bound to be concerned. Concern is fine; panic is what I want to help you avoid. Here are some facts that might calm your racing heart:
•Your lifetime risk of getting breast cancer is approximately 1 in 8 (or 7, or 9; the number varies by source).
That’s LFETIME risk, i.e., if you live past the age of 80. That doesn’t mean your risk is 1 in 8 right now, this minute. The exact age/risk equation varies from source to source, but here’s a recent readout I got from a research radiologist at my local cancer center, which happens to be a cutting-edge research facility as well as a top-notch treatment center. These figures are for an average population of women, by the way, women with no known risk factors for breast cancer. Women probably just like you.
Risk up to age—
25: 1 in 25,000
30: 1 in 1900
40: 1 in 200
50: 1 in 50
60: 1 in 23
70: 1 in 15
80: 1 in 11
85: 1 in 10
Lifetime risk: 1 in 9
So, where do you fall on the scale? For the many teenagers and 20-somethings who write asking if you have breast cancer—I’m happy to say, probably not, based on the numbers above. In fact, about 77% of women diagnosed with breast cancer are over the age of 50; so really, it’s an older woman’s disease. Not to say it’s impossible for you to get breast cancer under the age of 50; just unlikely.
•Pain is very, very seldom a breast cancer symptom.
For all of you reporting a burning sensation, pain, soreness, etc., there are only two rare breast cancers that announce themselves with pain. So if you’re a younger woman reporting pain in your breast(s), take heart; youth and pain are actually two positives, when it comes to breast cancer.
•Nipple discharge: according to the Mayo clinic, “cancer is rarely the underlying cause” of nipple discharge.
Your breasts may secrete fluid ranging from thin and watery to thick and sticky; and in color from milky, to yellow, greenish, brown, or bloody. This can be caused by a hormonal imbalance, an injury, an infection, an abnormal (but benign) growth in your breast… The thing to remember is this: If you’re having discharge from both breasts, it almost certainly isn’t cancer. And unless it’s bloody, again, it almost certainly isn’t cancer. And even if it’s bloody, it’s most probably not cancer. Not to say you shouldn’t get it checked out; just don’t assume it’s a cancer symptom, because it seldom is.
•If the issue is in both breasts—tenderness around your nipples, burning, pain, lumpiness—it’s probably not cancer.
Cancer very, very rarely presents itself in both breasts at once; it usually shows up in just one breast. Now, on further examination you might be found to have signs of cancer in both breasts; but usually you can only feel something worrisome—e.g., a lump—in one breast.
•A lump in your breast usually doesn't signal cancer.
While a lump is the symptom most likely to actually signal breast cancer, 85% of breast biopsies—minor surgery to check out a lump—are negative. A lump can be a benign tumor, a cyst, scar tissue, fibrocystic disease, or something else. So if you feel a lump, take heart—it’s probably NOT cancer. That said, discovering a lump in your breast is something you should always, ALWAYS report to your doctor—unless it comes and goes in tandem with your period.
There; do you feel better? Breast cancer is a random disease that can strike anyone, anytime. But you know what? Chances are, it will never strike YOU. So relax, and find a more realistic focus for those worry genes—like the ever-rising price of gas!