It is not surprising that a disease as devastating as breast cancer would have myths or misconceptions surrounding it. It is sometimes hard to know what to believe – and even mainstream media is guilty of propagating some of these falsehoods. In this day and age of instantaneous publishing, some studies would likely not pass muster in highly regarded peer-reviewed scientific publications, but are widely posted online and even broadcast by major media outlets.
In other instances, misconceptions can be tied to guidelines from reputable organizations that seem to change or be contradictory with some frequency – i.e., mammograms and monthly breast self-exams. In other cases, myths may be handed down by family or picked up as hearsay, without any scientific evidence whatsoever to support them. Here is a look at some of the more common misconceptions about breast cancer.
Breast pain is a symptom of breast cancer: Breast cancer rarely causes pain, and sometimes has no symptoms at all. The majority of breast pain or tenderness can be attributed to fibrocystic breast changes, fluctuations in hormones, or a benign cyst, which can feel firm or soft. A doctor can aspirate the cyst and withdraw the fluid that causes the pain.
Antiperspirant deodorant causes breast cancer: This myth is tied to parabens, preservatives used in some antiperspirants. One small study found parabens in samples of tissue from human breast tumors, but did not analyze healthy breast tissue or tissues from other areas of the body Some websites still infer that chemicals in underarm antiperspirants are absorbed through the skin, interfere with lymph circulation, cause toxins to build up in the breast, and eventually lead to breast cancer. In fact, a large study comparing the underarm hygiene habits of women with breast cancer to a control group without breast cancer found no connection between breast cancer risk and using underarm antiperspirants.
Tight, underwire bras cause breast cancer: A husband and wife medical anthropologist team was responsible for this myth. They claimed that by wearing tight-fitting bras all day, every day, women inhibit lymphatic drainage, thereby causing toxins to become trapped in breast tissue. Scientists discounted their theory because it did not analyze confounding risk factors for breast cancer including family history, hormones, age, weight, physical activity, giving birth at age 30 or older, or not having children.
All women with the inherited gene mutation BRCA1 or BRCA2 will get breast cancer: Although a woman who has inherited a harmful mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 is about five times more likely to develop breast cancer than a woman who does not have such a mutation, there is nothing definitive about this. Not all women from families that are known to carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have a harmful mutation. The fact is, only 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancers are due to hereditary mutations in genes.
Breast cancer only affects females: In the U.S., an estimated 232,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer are diagnosed annually in women compared to 2,350 new cases in men. So yes, breast cancer is predominately a female disease, affecting 100 times more women than men. Women have far more breast cells than men, which can increase the odds that some of these cells may become malignant. Furthermore, a woman’s breast cells are exposed to the growth-promoting effects of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone, which increases breast cancer risk.
Monthly self-exams are the best way to find breast cancer early: There is some disagreement about the value of monthly self-exams to detect signs of breast cancer. While the American Cancer Society no longer recommends that all women routinely perform monthly breast self-exams, some experts still suggest it. There is agreement that women should familiarize themselves with their breasts. Research has shown that breast awareness seems to be more effective for detecting breast cancer than a formal monthly exam. More women discover breast cancer while bathing, showering or dressing, than when performing monthly breast exams.
Prolonged hormone/endocrine therapy is necessary for all women after their breast cancer treatment ends: the truth is, the road to recovery is a different path for each individual patient. For many breast cancer patients, endocrine therapy becomes the default next step post treatment, but not everyone will benefit from it. New medial analyses such as the Breast Cancer Index have emerged to help personalize each patient’s post five-year treatment plan.
It’s important to know these common misconceptions and have a clear understanding of the facts related to breast cancer, so that cancer can be detected and diagnosed early on and the right treatment plan can be administered.