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.”