10 Breast Cancer Myths You Need to Stop Believing
Twitter is great for a lot of things. Diagnosing breast cancer is not one of them.
Since the first National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October 1985, millions of women (and many men too) have been motivated to take action in the form of a potentially life-saving mammogram—37 million are done each year. Which is fantastic.
Problem is, awareness can also breed fiction, and our social feeds and email inboxes are especially adept at spreading medical information that isn’t exactly correct. Or even remotely correct.
Here are 10 common breast cancer myths you need to stop believing, like, today.
Myth #1: If You Have Breast Cancer, It’ll Probably Kill You
Most people survive breast cancer. Overall, 90 percent of women survive five years or more, according to data from the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (SEER). Women who are diagnosed when the cancer is still at a localized stage—before it’s spread to other organs or tissue—have a 99 percent survival rate. Indeed, early diagnosis is everything.
Myth #2: Breast Cancer Is Her Problem
Men have breast tissue, so they get breast cancer too. According to SEER data, an estimated 2,550 men were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. While that’s only 1 percent of all diagnoses, according to research in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, it’s usually caught later in guys and is thus more lethal.
Myth #3: A BRCA Mutation Means You Will Get Cancer
“A lot of people fear genetic testing,” says Julie Nangia, M.D., director of the Breast Cancer Prevention and High Risk Clinic at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “They’re afraid if they test positive, it means they’ll develop cancer.”
The truth: Even if you test positive for a BRCA mutation, it simply means you’re at higher risk—not that your fate is sealed.
A study published in JAMA in 2017 found that female carriers of the BRCA1 and BRCA 2 mutations have a 72 percent and 69 percent chance, respectively, of developing breast cancer by age 80.
Myth #4: If You Have a BRCA Mutation, a Mastectomy Is the Best Option
Watchful waiting may be a better plan. “You may choose to be monitored with increased imaging like a breast MRI in addition to mammogram, versus having prophylactic surgery,” says Dr. Nangia.
If you carry the gene, understanding your family history—who developed cancer, who didn’t—is very important. A genetic counselor will help take this into account when recommending a path forward.
Myth #5: Breast Cancer Risk Is Only Passed Through Your Mom’s Side
This is simply not true, says Dr. Nangia. Make sure to tell your doctor about any cases of breast cancer on your father’s side, too.
Myth #6: Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners Can Cause Breast Cancer
Contrary to popular belief, there’s no solid evidence that eating sugar or artificial sweeteners raises your risk, says Adam Brufsky, M.D., Ph.D., co-director of Comprehensive Breast Cancer Center at the University of Pittsburgh.
According to research published in Nutrients, the Mediterranean diet can help protect against breast cancer. That means loads of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats, and almost no processed foods.
Myth #7: Deodorant Can Cause Breast Cancer
Social media conspiracists claim that the aluminum in antiperspirants—which are applied regularly to the skin near the breast—can have estrogen-like effects, thus raising your risk of breast cancer. But according to the National Cancer Institute, there hasn’t been any scientific evidence linking the products to the development of breast cancer.
Myth #8: You Can’t Lower Your Breast Cancer Risk
“Studies estimate that 30 percent of breast cancer can be prevented by lifestyle changes,” says Dr. Nangia.
One of the biggest is maintaining at a healthy weight. “Fat releases hormones that get converted to estrogen, and for breast cancer risk for postmenopausal breast cancer,” she says.
Other lifestyle factors, like not drinking to excess and logging at least 3 hours of moderate exercise a week, can help too.
Myth #9: A Lump in the Breast Is the Only Warning Sign
A lump is the most common presenting symptom of breast cancer, according to a study published in Cancer Epidemiology, but it’s not the only one to watch for.
Others: a lump or swollen lymph node under your armpit, a dimple in your breast, an orange-peel appearance or swelling of your breast, a new inverted nipple, or discharge from a nipple, says Dr. Nangia.
Myth #10: A Lump Definitely Means Cancer
If you find a lump, don’t fear the worst. “In the United States, 1 in 4 to 1 in 5 biopsies is a cancer,” says Dr. Nangia. “That means 75 to 80 percent of biopsies end up being benign.”
In younger women with no family history or risk factors, a lump in the breast is most likely a noncancerous breast tumor called a fibroadenoma. Ask your doc to check it out, and try not to freak out while waiting for the results.