Facts and myths about breast cancer

Facts and myths about breast cancer

Information supplied by Breakthrough Breast Cancer, CancerBACUP,
Cancer Research Campaign, and the Breast Cancer Coalition.
[Abstract] Full Text [PDF]


Get to know your breasts and the facts about breast cancer

It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to finding out the truth about breast cancer. In keeping with the theme of this year’s Breast Cancer Awareness month, Dispelling Breast Cancer Myths, Jane Ehrlich aims to set the record straight

The facts

1. Most breast abnormalities are benign
About 80% of breast lumps are. (The percentage becomes smaller as a woman ages.) Sometimes there can be cysts, nipple discharges and calcification (calcium salt deposits in breast tissues) resulting from injury or bruising, hormonal changes or infection. However, women should be aware of the signs that may indicate breast cancer:
Lumps in breasts and the area up to and around the armpits
Nipple discharge, rash or changes in position, or inversion (turning inwards)
Puckering or dimpling of the skin. Discomfort or pain in one breast that differs from the other
Any changes in shape, appearance, symmetry or feel of your breasts.

2. Only a small percentage of breast cancer cases are hereditary
Just 5-10%. Researchers have identified two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, that, when mutated, are associated with an increased chance of getting the disease. Of all the risk factors involved (family history, age, early period or late menopause, childlessness or late childbearing), a mutated BRCA gene can account for 5% increased risk. According to the Cancer Research Campaign, the other 5% is thought to be linked to genetics as well, although how is uncertain.

3. Women spot most breast cancers themselves
Their partners often spot them, too. Lying down, standing in front of the mirror (for visual changes) and in the shower are all good positions to explore breast changes. Many women find their lumps when they and their partners are in bed or shower and bathe together.

4. It is safe to get pregnant after treatment for breast cancer
There doesn’t appear to be any extra risk of breast cancer returning if you get pregnant. However, many specialists advise women to wait for a couple of years after diagnosis of breast cancer, as this is considered to be the most common time for a cancer to recur.

5. Survival rates have increased in recent years
The incident rate for breast cancer in England and Wales has risen -we’re finding more cancers because of increased screening, awareness and better detection, according to Ruth Yates, of the CRC. But survival figures have risen significantly. We’re living longer after having cancer. (‘Survival’ means staying alive five years after diagnosis. Improvements in screening programmes and uptake are recent, so 10-year rates aren’t available.) As we’re catching more early cancers, and as drugs improve, therapies are more effective. If detected in the earliest stage, there is a 92% survival rate.

The myths

1. Wearing a bra causes breast cancer
The rumour goes that tight bras obstruct the lymph system, so toxins collect in breast tissue, causing cancer. This assumption isn’t even biologically plausible. Any decrease of blood supply (unlikely with a bra) or increased pressure doesn’t create ‘toxicity’ in breasts, and can’t cause normal cells to turn malignant. Wearing a bra doesn’t cause cysts, either. (However, for a small number of women who have painful breasts as a result of cysts, going braless might decrease discomfort.)

2. Using antiperspirant causes cancer
It was thought that stopping our armpits sweating blocks the release of toxins, which then supposedly settle into the lymph nodes, and cells then become cancerous. Both the process and the result have no scientific evidence to support them. Sweat contains no toxins, just 99.9% water, salts, potassium and magnesium, and is there just to regulate our body temperature. It doesn’t eliminate toxins – our kidneys and liver do this. The aluminium in antiperspirants is not carcinogenic. Chemicals that might enter our circulation don’t necessarily end up stored in breast tissue or the lymph system. They’re excreted by urination, or from other perspiring areas like the groin, behind the knees, or our palms. And antiperspirant chemicals don’t end up in the lymph nodes.

Transgendered people’s quest for perfect breasts is often unrelenting – but don’t forget to care for them!!!

3. The Pill causes breast cancer
No it doesn’t, even if you take it for 10 years or more. The amount of hormones in the Pill is too small to pose a risk. Most women are prescribed low-dose formulas, which contain 50-100% less oestrogen than most birth control pills had before 1975. If you took the Pill before that time, and have a strong family history of breast cancer, check with your doctor.

4. Breast cancer is the most deadly cancer for women in the UK
Correction: it’s the most common cancer (36,141 new cases in the UK in 1996) but not the deadliest. That tragic honour belongs to lung cancer. While fewer women get it (15,246 in the UK in 1996), more die from it.

5. Self-exams are a waste of time
Wrong. Breast awareness works, and remains a useful method for early detection, along with mammography and regular breast exams by a medical professional. While none of these methods is 100% accurate, together they’re the best means yet of finding any breast tumours. And the earlier a lump is found, as Dr Lesley Walker at the CRC points out, the less likely a mastectomy may be needed. Becoming familiar with how your breasts look and feel at different times of the month, means that if changes are noticed, you should see your doctor.

Questions to ask your doctor
1. What risk is there of me developing breast cancer?
2. What is the stage of my cancer and what does it mean?
3. What sort of treatment do you recommend and why?
4. What sort of risks will be associated with those treatments?
5. Will I be able to work or will I be at home in bed? For how long?
6. What should I do about diet and exercise while I’m getting treatments?
7. Will I be very disfigured? If so, can you tell me about options for reconstruction?
8. What’s my prognosis?
9. If I go through all the treatments as you prescribe, what are the chances that the cancer will just come back?
10. If it does come back, what then?
11. Are there any clinical trials I might be able to participate in?


Citation: Information supplied by Breakthrough Breast Cancer, CancerBACUP, Cancer Research Campaign, and the Breast Cancer Coalition.