10 Breast Cancer Myths & Truths

Breast Cancer, Featured Article, Women's Health
on October 3, 2014
breast cancer myths and truths

Just the words “breast cancer” can set women’s fears churning. No one needs myths and half-truths to amp up that distress.

Below, experts deconstruct commons myths, offering facts that may ease your fears—or at least help you better understand where to focus concerns.

Myth: “Breast cancer is one disease.”

Truth: There are different types of breast cancer, each with its own cause and behavior, says Sara Hurvitz, MD, Director of the Hematology/Oncology Breast Cancer Program at UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. As types become better understood, treatments will likely become more specific, targeting each type of cancer.

Myth: “Any lump is breast cancer.”

Truth: “Normal breast tissue is lumpy,” says Sharon Rosenbaum-Smith, MD, professor of Surgery at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a breast surgeon at Mount Sinai Roosevelt in New York City. “And there are [harmless] lesions such as cysts, solid masses called fibroadenomas and fatty tumors called

Myth: “Breast cancer treatments are limited.”

Truth: A range of treatments—surgery, radiation, and targeted therapies– exist for cancer in stages 1 to 3, says Hurvitz. Because of those and earlier diagnosis through mammography, the five-year survival rate has risen to more than 90 percent. Therapies in development may eventually offer more hope for those with end-stage breast cancer.

Myth: “Men cannot get breast cancer.”

Truth: “One percent of breast cancer happens in men,” says Rosenbaum-Smith. “So men who notice a mass, redness, or a change in their nipples, should see a doctor.”

Myth: “Breast cancer affects only older women.” 

Truth: About 20 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer are under 50, and 50 percent are under age 65, says Hurvitz: “Women of all ages should be aware of [breast] changes such as a lump, skin thickening, reddening, persistent pain, or breast enlargement.”

Myth: “If a family member gets breast cancer, so will you.” 

Truth: Most breast cancers are not hereditary, says Hurvitz: “Only ten percent occur because of a gene mutation.”

Myth: “If you have the gene mutation BRCA 1 or 2, you will get breast cancer.”

Truth: Having either gene—or both– increase your lifetime risk of breast or ovarian cancer up to 80 percent, but does not make breast cancer a certainty, says Rosenbaum-Smith.

Myth: “Breast cancer is limited to the breast.”

Truth: Cancer cells may escape to other parts of the body, says Hurvitz: “That’s why we recommend chemotherapy, anti-estrogen therapy and/or targeted therapy [even] even in early stage breast cancer to reach those microscopic cancer cells.”

Myth: “Women no longer need mammograms.”

Truth: “Mammograms remain the gold standard of breast cancer screening,” says Rosenbaum-Smith. Women should continue to get mammograms annually, starting at age 40. “However, mammograms only detect 90 percent of all breast cancers,” she continues, “which is why if a health provider sees something [suspicious] on a mammogram, she will follow up with a physical exam, ultrasound, or biopsy.”

Myth: “You can’t get breast cancer after a mastectomy.”

Truth: “You have a one to three percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer after a mastectomy,” says Rosenbaum-Smith. “So, you still need to have follow-up appointments with your breast surgeon.”