MYTH #1: Breast cancer only affects older women.
TRUTH: No. While it’s true that the risk of breast cancer increases as we grow older, breast cancer can occur at any age. From birth to age 39, one woman in 231 will get breast cancer (<0.5% risk); from age 40–59, the chance is one in 25 (4% risk); from age 60–79, the chance is one in 15 (nearly 7%).
MYTH #2: If you have a risk factor you will definitely develop breast cancer.
TRUTH: No. Getting breast cancer is not a certainty, even if you have one of the stronger risk factors, like a breast cancer gene abnormality. Of women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 inherited genetic abnormality, 40–80% will develop breast cancer over their lifetime; 20–60% won’t. All other risk factors are associated with a much lower probability of being diagnosed with breast cancer.
MYTH #3: If breast cancer doesn’t run in your family, you won’t get it.
TRUTH: No. Every woman has some risk of breast cancer. About 80% of women who get breast cancer have no known family history of the disease. Increasing age – just the wear and tear of living – is the biggest single risk factor for breast cancer. For those women who do have a family history of breast cancer, your risk may be elevated a little, a lot, or not at all. If you are concerned, discuss your family history with your physician or a genetic counselor.
MYTH #4: The use of antiperspirants contributes to an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
TRUTH: No. There is no evidence that the active ingredient in antiperspirants or reducing perspiration from the underarm area, influences breast cancer risk. The supposed link between breast cancer and antiperspirants is based on misinformation about anatomy and a misunderstanding of breast cancer.
MYTH #5: The use of birth control pills can lead to an increased risk of developing breast cancer.
TRUTH: No. Modern day birth control pills contain a low dose of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. They have not been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. The higher-dose contraceptive pills used in the past were associated with a small increased risk in only a few studies. Today’s birth control pills can provide some protection against ovarian cancer.
MYTH #6: Eating fatty foods can increase your risk of breast cancer.
TRUTH: No. Several large studies have not been able to demonstrate a clear connection between eating high-fat foods and a higher risk of breast cancer. Ongoing studies are attempting to clarify this issue further. We can say that avoidance of high-fat foods is a healthy choice for other reasons: to lower the “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins), increase the “good” cholesterol (high-density lipoproteins); to make more room in your diet for healthier foods, and to help you control your weight. Excess body weight, IS a risk factor for breast cancer, because the extra fat increases the production of estrogen outside the ovaries and adds to the overall level of estrogen in the body. If you are already overweight, or have a tendency to gain weight easily, avoiding high-fat foods is a good idea.
MYTH #7: A monthly breast self-exam is the best way to diagnose breast cancer.
TRUTH: No. High quality, film-screen mammography is the most reliable way to find breast cancer as early as possible, when it is most curable. By the time a breast cancer can be felt, it is usually bigger than the average size of a cancer first found on mammography. Breast examination by you or your healthcare provider is still very important. About 25% of breast cancers are found only on breast examination (not on the mammogram), about 35% are found on mammography alone, and 40% are found by both physical exam and mammography. Keep both bases covered.
MYTH #8: I’m at high risk for breast cancer and there’s nothing I can do about it.
TRUTH: No. There are several effective ways to reduce—but not eliminate—the risk of breast cancer in women at high risk. Options include lifestyle changes (minimize alcohol consumption, stop smoking, exercise regularly), medication (tamoxifen, also called Nolvadex); and in cases of very high risk, surgery may be offered (prophylactic mastectomies, and for some women, prophylactic ovary removal). Be sure that you have consulted with a physician or genetic counselor before you make assumptions about your level of risk.