I’ll be the first to admit that until recently, I hadn’t given breast cancer a second thought. Sure my mom would mention annual mammograms and my own doctor has suggested regular self-breast exams until she was blue in the face, but the risk never seemed likely. In fact, for a long time I believed breast cancer was only something that occurred with women who had a family history of the disease and who wore heavy deodorant. (Just kidding about the latter.) I definitely fell into the “uninformed” category when it came to the disease. However this October, I decided it was time to become aware.
In spirit of Breast Cancer Awareness month, here are some common myths about the disease that have been busted.
Myth: Only women with a family history of breast cancer are at risk.
Reality: Roughly 70% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors for the disease. But the family-history risks are these: If a first-degree relative (a parent, sibling, or child) has had or has breast cancer, your risk of developing the disease approximately doubles. Having two first-degree relatives with the disease increases your risk even more.
Myth: Most breast lumps are cancerous.
Reality: Roughly 80% of lumps in women’s breasts are caused by benign (noncancerous) changes, cysts, or other conditions. Doctors encourage women to report any changes at all, however, because catching breast cancer early is so beneficial. Your doctor may recommend a mammogram, ultrasound, or biopsy to determine whether a lump is cancerous.
Myth: Small-breasted women have less chance of getting breast cancer.
Reality: There’s no connection between the size of your breasts and your risk of getting breast cancer. Very large breasts may be harder to examine than small breasts, with clinical breast exams—and even mammograms and MRIs—more difficult to conduct. But all women, regardless of breast size, should commit to routine screenings and checkups.
Myth: If you’re at risk for breast cancer, there’s little you can do but watch for the signs.
Reality: There’s a lot that women can do to lower their risk, including losing weight if they’re obese, getting regular exercise, lowering or eliminating alcohol consumption, being rigorous about examining their own breasts, and having regular clinical exams and mammograms. Quitting smoking wouldn’t hurt either.
Some high-risk women also choose to have a prophylactic mastectomy to decrease their risk by roughly 90%. They can take other proactive steps such as having regular MRIs, exploring chemoprevention with treatments such as tamoxifen, and participating in clinical trials.
Myth: Women with lumpy breasts (also known as fibrocystic breast changes) have a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
Reality: In the past, women with lumpy, dense, or fibrocystic breasts were believed to be at higher risk of getting breast cancer, but there doesn’t appear to be a connection after all. However, when you have lumpy breasts, it can be trickier to differentiate normal tissue from cancerous tissue, so you may experience false alarms. Women with fibrocystic breasts often follow up their mammograms with an ultrasound.
Myth: Fertility treatments increase the risk of getting breast cancer.
Reality: Given estrogen’s connection to breast cancer, fertility treatments have come under suspicion. But several studies have found that prospective moms are likely to have no higher risk of breast cancer. As yet, no large, long-term, randomized studies have eliminated this concern entirely; it merits more research to find a definite answer.
Healthy Tip of the Day: Instead of grabbing your usual head of lettuce at the store this week, try some darker greens like spinach, arugula, or kale. Dress them up with some oil and vinegar for a new flavor.