MYTHS About Breast Cancer & Cancer Screening

So much progress has been made on the subject of breast cancer during the past several years that it is nearly impossible for you or even your doctor to be sufficiently up to speed on all of the developments.

Historically, and in many different areas of medicine, a certain “entrenchment” of information takes place. When this occurs, a collective mindset takes hold and it is even more difficult to affect or change people’s opinions on the subject.

For example, during the past quarter-century, medical professionals advocated a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet to prevent heart disease. This has now been scientifically proven to be incorrect, yet many of us still make a conscious decision to avoid butter and other saturated fats, whole milk and red meat. Interestingly, during this “low fat diet” period, the average weight of an American woman has also increased nearly 25 pounds.    source: CDC

This example is intended to show that the medical “experts” are not always right… or at the least, not as current as they should be.  And if so many doctors could have been so wrong about something so important as the recommended human diet for so many years, why should we assume they are still offering the best advice when it comes to breast health?

Let’s begin by dispelling the myths associated with breast cancer as well as the screening methods designed to provide early detection:

mammogram in progress

Myths about Breast Cancer

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MYTH: Most women with breast cancer have a family history of the disease.

FACT: The figures vary, but somewhere between 70-86% of all breast cancers occur in women with no known hereditary risk. However, it is true that a family history of the disease does indeed increase your risk.

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MYTH: You can’t reduce your risk for developing breast cancer.

FACT: There are some risk factors for breast cancer that you simply can’t control. These include gender, age and genetic (family) risk. The factors that have been shown to increase breast cancer risk include having children later in life, using birth control, hormone therapy, breastfeeding, alcohol and tobacco use, and obesity/lack of exercise. Keep in mind…some of these factors have only been demonstrated to increase risk slightly. It is important that you do further research on your own into these individual risk factors.

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MYTH: Implants, antiperspirants, underwire bras, hair straighteners, fertility treatments, abortion, caffeine, living near power lines can cause breast cancer or increase risk.

FACT: Despite what you have heard, there is no scientific evidence at this time that any of these can or will increase breast cancer risk. If you’re a woman living in Long Island, NY and are reading this and shaking your head in disagreement, please visit:

http://epi.grants.cancer.gov/past-initiatives/LIBCSP/

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MYTH: Most lumps found in the breast are cancerous.

FACT: Actually, about 80% of lumps are shown to be benign (non-cancerous). But any lump should always be evaluated by your doctor.

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MYTH: Your risk of developing breast cancer is 1 in 8.

FACT: This is not quite true. In reality, the risk is lower when a woman is younger and higher when she’s older. A woman’s chances of being diagnosed with breast cancer are 1 in about 233 when she’s in her 30s, and 1 in 8 by the time she reaches 85 years of age.

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MYTH: Women with larger breasts are more prone to breast cancer.

FACT: There is no connection between breast size and cancer risk. What may be true is that women with very large or very small breasts may be more difficult to perform breast imaging on due to their size.

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MYTH: You can’t get breast cancer after a mastectomy.

FACT: Although the risk is much lower (10-20%), you can still get breast cancer after a mastectomy.

Myths about Breast Cancer Screening

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MYTH: Monthly breast self-exams (BSEs) are an important way to detect breast cancer.

FACT: According to Susan G. Komen: “BSE (Breast self exams) seemed promising when it was first introduced, however, studies have shown it does not offer the early detection and survival benefits of other screening tests. So, BSE is not recommended as a screening tool for breast cancer.”

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MYTH: A lump is the only outward sign of breast cancer.

FACT: There are several outward symptoms that are associated with breast cancer, but having one or more of this symptoms does not necessarily mean cancer is present. Symptoms can include, but are not limited to:

  • A thickening or swelling of the breast

  • Any dimpling, puckering or indention in the breast

  • Redness or scaliness of the nipple or breast skin

  • Nipple discharge (fluid coming from your nipples other than breast milk)

  • Nipple tenderness or pain

  • Nipple retraction, turning or drawing inward or pointing in a new direction

Source: imaginis

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MYTH: A mammogram is the best way for you to achieve early detection.

FACT: A mammogram MAY be the best way for you to achieve early detection. But mammograms are less effective in women with denser breast tissue. If you were classified as BI-RADS 3 or 4 during your last mammogram, you should consider a supplemental screening in addition to mammography. Also, a negative mammogram doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in the clear. Mammograms fail to detect 10-20% of all breast cancers, and this number is much higher in women with denser breast tissue.

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MYTH: Mammograms expose you to so much radiation that they actually increase your risk for cancer.

FACT: There is no scientific evidence whatsoever that shows a correlation between mammograms and increased cancer risk. The .4 mSv (millisieverts) of radiation received during a mammogram is roughly equivalent to the amount of radiation you would receive during a few roundtrip flights between New York and Los Angeles, and less than the extra radiation you would receive in a year from natural sources if you lived in Denver, CO. For more about radiation and medical imaging, click here.

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MYTH: Mammograms are only recommended for women over 50, and then at two year intervals.

FACT: The American Cancer Society, Komen and the American College of Radiology all recommend screening mammograms for normal-risk women begin at age 40, and to be performed every year. Yes, you may have seen a news report saying otherwise, but this is more fully addressed under the section entitled “The Government, The Media and Misinformation.”

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MYTH: All mammography providers offer the same high quality screenings.

FACT: If only that were true! In reality, there are differences in the type of equipment used for screening, as well as the skill and training of the radiologist who interprets your test. Make sure that your provider uses late-generation mammography equipment and ask if a radiologist with subspecialty training in breast imaging will be interpreting your test. While these factors will not necessarily achieve a more accurate diagnosis, they can certainly tilt the odds in your favor.

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