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Debunking Breast Cancer Myths and Falsehoods

The National Breast Cancer Foundation advises that when an individual is told that they have breast cancer, it is only natural to wonder what may have caused the disease.   

According to the Foundation, no one knows the exact causes of breast cancer. 

Doctors seldom know why one woman develops breast cancer and another does not.   In addition, most women who have breast cancer will never be able to pinpoint an exact cause. 

What is known as a fact is that breast cancer is always caused by damage to a cell’s DNA.

Unfortunately, there are many points of misinformation associated with breast cancer.  Here are the facts about some of these myths:

Myth: Drinking milk (or dairy) causes breast cancer

Throughout the years, and over many decades, studies have shown that dairy consumption does not increase the risk of breast cancer. 

Myth: Finding a lump in your breast means you have breast cancer

Only a small percentage of breast lumps turn out to be cancer.  But, if a persistent lump is discovered, or a change is noted  in breast tissue, it should never be ignored.  It is very important to see a physician for a clinical breast exam. Imaging studies may be ordered to determine if the lump is a concern or not. 

It is most important to take personal charge by performing routine self-exams, to establish and maintain ongoing communication with your doctor, and to schedule annual clinical breast exams along with routine mammograms.

Myth: Men do not get breast cancer; it affects women only

Quite the contrary, each year it is estimated that approximately 2,190 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 410 will die. While this percentage is still small, men should also check themselves periodically by doing a breast self-exam while in the shower, and reportg any changes to their physicians. 

Breast cancer in men is usually detected as a hard lump underneath the nipple and areola.  

It is important to note men carry a higher mortality than women do, primarily because awareness among men is less and men are less likely to assume a lump is breast cancer, a fact which can cause a delay in seeking treatment.

Myth: A mammogram can cause breast cancer to spread

A mammogram or x-ray of the breast currently remains the gold standard for the early detection of breast cancer. Breast compression while getting a mammogram cannot cause cancer to spread. According to the National Cancer Institute, “The benefits of mammography, however, nearly always outweigh the potential harm from the radiation exposure. Mammograms require very small doses of radiation. The risk of harm from this radiation exposure is extremely low.”

The standard recommendation is an annual screening for women beginning at age 40. Consult a physician and be receptive to their recommendation; discuss questions or concerns you may have.

Myth: If you have a family history of breast cancer, you are likely to develop breast cancer, too

While women who have a family history of breast cancer are in a higher risk group, most women who have breast cancer have no family history.  Statistically only about 10% of individuals diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history of this disease.  

If you have a first degree relative with breast cancer –– a mother, daughter or sister who developed breast cancer below the age of 50, it is recommended to consider some form of regular diagnostic breast imaging starting 10 years before the age of the relative’s diagnosis. 

If you have a second degree relative with breast cancer –– a grandmother or aunt who was diagnosed with breast cancer, the risk increases slightly, but it is not in the same risk category as those who have a first degree relative with breast cancer. 

If you have multiple generations diagnosed with breast cancer on the same side of the family, or if there are several individuals who are first degree relatives to one another or several family members diagnosed under age 50, the probability increases that a breast cancer gene is contributing to the familial history.

Myth: Breast cancer is contagious

You cannot catch breast cancer or transfer it to someone else’s body. Breast cancer is the result of uncontrolled cell growth of mutated cells that begin to spread into other tissues within the breast. However, the risk is reduced by practicing a healthy lifestyle, being aware of the risk factors, and following an early detection plan.

Myth: If the gene mutation BRCA1 or BRCA2 is detected in your DNA, you will definitely develop breast cancer

According to the National Cancer Institute, in families known to carry BRCA1 or BRCA2, “not every woman in such families carries a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, and not every cancer in such families is linked to a harmful mutation in one of these genes. Furthermore, not every woman who has a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation will develop breast and/or ovarian cancer. But, 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.” 

For those who have the mutation, there are proactive measures recommended to reduce risk. Options include taking a hormonal therapy called Tamoxifen; or opting for a surgical prevention approach and undergo a bilateral prophylactic mastectomies, a surgery usually done with reconstruction.  Most women will also have ovaries and fallopian tubes removed as well since there is no reliable screening test for the early stages of developing ovarian cancer.

1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. There is currently no known cure for breast cancer, and its early diagnosis is critical to survival.

The National Breast Cancer Foundation’s mission is to help women now by providing help and inspiring hope to those affected by breast cancer through early detection, education and support services.

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