Busting myths about breast cancer

Let's investigate some of the commonest myths surrounding breast cancer

breast cancer graphicBreast cancer is one of the most common cancers. Yet, there are more misconceptions surrounding the disease, than there are facts. Here, we bust some of the widespread myths to give you the truth.

Myth: Only women over 40 need to worry about breast cancer

Living with this false belief can be dangerous. Breast cancer can affect an individual of any age. The disease is more common in post-menopausal women, but 20 per cent of women with breast cancer are younger than 40. Hence, younger women should have their breasts examined by a doctor at least once a year; and begin regular mammographic screening after they turn 40. Though, there is a low risk of a breast mass in younger women being cancerous, but if you feel a growth, it’s always advisable to have it checked as soon as possible.

Myth: Men can’t get breast cancer

Because of their anatomy, it’s believed that only women get breast cancer. The truth is that although women develop breast cancer at a much higher rate, men can develop breast cancer, too. In fact, in the US alone, about 1600 men will develop breast cancer by the end of this year. The symptoms and the treatment of the disease in men is the same as that in women. Just as in women, the risk in men also increases with advancing age.

Myth: Antiperspirants and deodorants can cause breast cancer

A lot of people believe that if you get a cut near your breast [while shaving your armpits] and you use an antiperspirant or deodorant over that area, it leaks into the skin, which causes breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, there is no scientific evidence supporting this belief. In fact, a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, carried out to investigate a co-relation between antiperspirants and breast cancer, found no increase in the incidence of breast cancer in women who used antiperspirants. The study concluded: there are other factors that cause breast cancer, and antiperspirants aren’t one of them.

Myth: Birth control pills, mammograms cause cancer

The amount of oestrogen in birth control pills is too small to trigger development of cancer in the breast. Yet, it’s safer to choose a contraceptive after discussing your health with your gynaecologists.

Exposure to radiations is one of the risk factors of breast cancer. However, the radiation emitted out of a mammogram isn’t high enough to cause harm.

Myth: A breast lump means cancer

Many women report having lumps in their breasts, however, 80 per cent of such lumps are harmless. Often, they are either cysts or fibrocystic changes or fibroadenomas, which are all benign conditions. However, don’t dismiss any lump as unimportant because it could be pre-cancerous. Once again, get any abnormal growth checked thoroughly.

Myth: Small breasts means low risk.

In that case, men shouldn’t be getting breast cancer at all. Breast size is determined by the amount of breast tissue one has. And how much breast tissues one has [meaning small or large breasts], is irrelevant when it comes to developing breast cancer.

Myth: Mastectomy is the only treatment.

There are several options to treat breast cancer such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy and hormone therapy. Mastectomy is not the only option. It is suggested only in specific cases where either the patient isn’t responding to other treatment or if the type of cancer warrants such treatment.

Myth: Cancer isn’t in my genes

Having a family history of cancer increases your risk by 5 – 10 per cent as compared to other factors. If you have a BRCA gene mutation, your risk for breast cancer is much higher than the risk of the average woman, say about 60 per cent – 80 per cent. But not being genetically predisposed, doesn’t mean you won’t develop breast cancer.

Myth: My diet is healthy, so I will be immune to breast cancer

Although it’s important to eat nutritious food, that alone can’t protect you from developing a cancer. No one food or vitamin by itself is enough to keep away such a dreadful disease. Like mentioned before, other factors play a role too. That does not mean you have to quit eating a healthy diet.

Myth: My mammogram was normal, now I don’t have to worry

A mammogram only helps screen for cancer. You shouldn’t rely on that alone and get a physical examination done too. Also, if your mammogram is clear, it only means that you don’t have breast cancer at that time. So, you must repeat the screening test again after a year.

Check your self

Examine yourself, 3 – 5 days after your periods start as the breasts are not very tender or lumpy during this time.

  1. Lie down, raise one hand to keep it behind your head. Using your fingers of the other hand, press the breast tissue firmly to check for abnormal lumps. Check up to your armpit.
  2. Sit up. Once again check the area till the armpits. Check for discharge by squeezing nipples gently.
  3. Standing in front of the mirror, look at your breasts [with your arms at your sides]. Check for skin texture changes like dimples or indentations, change in shape, contour or nipple position.

Discuss changes with a doctor.

— Team Complete Wellbeing

Questions to ask your doctor if you notice a lump

  1. Which screening is more appropriate in my case—a mammogram or an ultrasound?
  2. If the tests of the mammogram and ultrasound are inconclusive, what next?
  3. Can aspirating [removing the fluid or cells using a needle] the lump help?
  4. What if the lump reappears?

This was first published in the August 2011 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

Dr Indoo Ambulkar is an oncology specialist at Holy Spirit Hospital, Mumbai, India.


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