So You Think You Know Breast Cancer: 10 Common Misconceptions

Patient Expert
Thinkstock

Breast cancer awareness has grown by leaps and bounds since 1974, when First Lady Betty Ford was diagnosed with the disease and broke all social taboos by talking about it in public. But despite the increased availability of information, misconceptions about both breast cancer itself and its treatment abound. Here are 10 "facts" that just aren’t true.

1. Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women.

While breast cancer gets an enormous amount of hype, the National Cancer Institute notes that skin cancer is actually more common in women than breast cancer.

2. Breast cancer always starts with a lump.

A lump is the most typical early symptom of breast cancer. However, the disease can also first evidence itself with skin changes (such as a red rash, bruise, or dimpling); an inverted nipple, or a band of thickened tissue.

3. Breast cancer is a killer.

Breast cancer can kill, but according to the American Cancer Society’s Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2015-2016, the death rate has been steadily falling since 2003. Across all diagnoses, both invasive and non-invasive, 86 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer will survive the disease.

4. You can get breast cancer at any age.

Close to true; children as young as 10 years old have been diagnosed with breast cancer. However, just five percent of breast cancer diagnoses are in women under age 40. The incidence rises precipitously as you age. At age 14, your chance of having breast cancer is about 1 in a million. At age 70, it’s one in 26. (Statistics courtesy of the American Cancer Society’s Breast Cancer Facts & Figures 2015-2016.)

5. Breast cancer is a woman’s disease.

While it’s much more common in women than men, the National Cancer Institute reports that about 2,300 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. That’s about 1 percent of the total.

6. Breast cancer is breast cancer; there’s only one type.

According to breastcancer.org, there are actually a dozen types of breast cancer, not including male breast cancer. These can range in severity from non-invasive DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) to aggressive inflammatory breast cancer. Types can center on milk ducts, milk lobules, the nipple, and the breast’s lymph system.

7. Having a mastectomy eliminates breast cancer risk.

If you’re considering a prophylactic mastectomy (breast removal when there’s no sign of cancer), the operation will reduce your risk of breast cancer by about 90 percent, but won’t eliminate it. Breast tissue isn’t confined to the breast itself, but stretches up under the arms and around the torso a bit; thus a mastectomy doesn’t remove all of your breast tissue.

8. You’ll go back to normal after treatment.

If you go through breast cancer treatment, be prepared for a “new normal.” At a minimum, you’ll bear the scars (and sometimes divots) of surgery. You may also suffer lasting effects from chemo or radiation, including neuropathy (“tingling toes”); the challenges of chemo-induced menopause or, in rare instances, permanent heart damage.

9. Breast cancer always starts in the breast.

Breast cancer grows in breast tissue, but breast tissue isn’t just in the breast; it’s under your arms, too. Beware an underarm lump; while it’s probably an infected lymph node, it can also be a breast cancer tumor.

10. Breast cancer can turn into another type of cancer.

Breast cancer can metastasize (spread) to many places in the body, but its most common destinations outside the breast are lungs, liver, bones, or brain. If it spreads, though, it remains breast cancer; you don’t have liver cancer or bone cancer, you have breast cancer that’s spread to your liver or bones. This is an important distinction, as treatment options are different.

See More Helpful Articles:

A Guide to Breast Cancer Symptoms

Top 10 Breast Cancer Risk Factors

Is This Breast Pain Serious? Five Ways to Tell

A Guide to Survivorship: Life After Treatment

Just Diagnosed? We Can Help


Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.

Save