8 common breast cancer myths debunked

September 28, 2020

Get the facts as we debunk these 8 common breast cancer myths

Several woman holding pink breast cancer awareness ribbons

When it comes to breast cancer education, having access to the facts is essential. But while the internet can be a wealth of information, not all of it is exactly accurate and it can often be difficult to know what to trust. That’s why we’re helping clear the air this Breast Cancer Awareness Month by dispelling a few common breast cancer myths.

Myth #1: Finding a lump in your breast means you have breast cancer

As you may know, performing regular self-exams is an important part of maintaining your health. However, should you find a lump during the course of a self-exam, it is not an immediate cause for alarm: There are many potential sources for lumps and only a small fraction of them are actually cancerous. In fact, most lumps and tumors that are examined through biopsy are benign

However, if you do find a lump, it's always a good idea to see a doctor just to be certain that it isn't malignant. Your doctor will likely request a mammogram just to be sure. 

It is also worth noting that breast cancer doesn't always cause lumps. This is especially true in earlier stages of the disease where the malignant cells have not yet formed a tumor large enough to be detected. That's why it is recommended that you keep a look out for some of the other warning signs of breast cancer

Myth #2: Men can't get breast cancer

While breast cancer is far more likely in women, that doesn't mean men can't get it. In both males and females, there are a number of places where cells can grow and eventually become cancerous, or metastasize.

For men, mammograms are not a common or necessarily practical way to screen for breast cancer. However, periodically checking for lumps and other common signs of breast cancer can be a simple method of detection. Just like women, men should reach out to their doctor for a more in-depth evaluation if a self-assessment reveals anything abnormal. 

Myth #3: Mammograms cause cancer to spread

Like a standard x-ray, mammograms use x-ray radiation to image breast tissue when checking for tumors or signs of breast cancer. While regular exposure to large amounts of radiation is known to be harmful, the amount of radiation used in a mammogram is extremely low. This means that any potential risk posed by mammogram radiation is far outweighed by the early warning diagnostic function it serves. 

There is also often concern that the compression aspect of a mammogram can cause cancer to spread. Fortunately, there is no truth to this at all. 

Mammograms are responsible for saving thousands of lives, and it is recommended that women schedule annual mammograms beginning at age 40. 

Myth #4: Young women don't get breast cancer

Although it is true that breast cancer is more commonly seen in older women, around 4% of the cases in the U.S. occur in women under 40. Despite this relatively low rate of diagnosis, breast cancers in younger women often form for different reasons and may grow faster, form higher-grade tumors, and ultimately become a more dangerous variety. 

Furthermore, age may also play a role in what types of treatment options are available. For example, certain hormone therapy treatments depend on whether or not a woman is premenopausal or postmenopausal.

Myth #5: If a woman is pregnant, she can't get breast cancer

While rare, expecting mothers can certainly develop breast cancer. Of course, the pregnancy isn't the source of the cancer, but the associated hormones released during a pregnancy may contribute to an increased rate of growth in cancerous tissue.

Depending on the stage of the pregnancy, breast size often naturally increases, making it difficult to detect smaller lumps and tumors with a self-examination. Furthermore, mammograms are often avoided during pregnancy as the radiation could harm the baby. This means that once a woman is pregnant, it becomes much more challenging to find and diagnose breast cancer. For this reason, many doctors include breast exams as part of their prenatal exams.

If a pregnant woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, treatment can be very difficult, and some may be impossible based on the stage of the pregnancy. Treatments such as radiation therapy, hormone therapy, and chemotherapy are not likely to be used as they can cause harm to the baby. While a mastectomy can be safe during pregnancy, many doctors will recommend waiting until after the baby is born to perform such a surgery.

Myth #6: Having family members with a history of breast cancer means you are certain to get breast cancer

There are many factors that can determine a woman's risk of developing breast cancer, such as lifestyle, health, environmental factors, and genetics. This means that while a family history of breast cancer may put you in a higher risk category, it by no means guarantees that you will have the disease. 

In fact, most women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history associated with the disease and only about 10% of the women with breast cancer do. If someone in your family has had breast cancer, your risk depends on how closely related to that individual you are. 

For example, if you have a first-degree female relative (such as a daughter, sister, or mother) who developed breast cancer, your risk is greater than someone with a second-degree relative (like your grandmother or aunt) with breast cancer.

It is important to reiterate that an increase risk does not mean you will without a doubt get breast cancer; again, genetics are only one factor. However, those with first-degree relatives that have been previously diagnosed should consider beginning their annual mammograms and breast evaluations 10 years before the age at which the relative received their diagnosis just to be on the safe side.

Myth #7: Breast cancer is contagious and can be spread from person to person

Like many cancers, breast cancers are a category of diseases characterized by the development and uncontrolled growth of abnormal or mutated cells. As this continues the mutated cells can make it difficult for normal bodily systems to function, causing a wide variety of health complications.

While cancer begins in a particular type of tissue or cell, over time, it can spread into other types of tissue and gradually affect other parts of the body, too. For example, while one type of breast cancer may begin with abnormal milk duct cells, it can spread to the lymph nodes and eventually other parts of the body

But while cancers can grow and spread within our own bodies, there is no evidence that breast cancer can spread from one person to another like a viral infection. In part, this is because that cells from one person's body, cancerous or otherwise, can't exist within someone else's body.

Myth #8: If I maintain a healthy lifestyle, I won't get breast cancer

To be clear, you should always do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle and practice healthy habits. There is ample evidence that if you eat well, don't smoke, limit or avoid alcohol, get adequate sleep, and exercise regularly, you lower your risk for breast cancer. But just as the increased risk of having a family history of the disease doesn't mean you will absolutely get it, the decreased risk of living a healthy lifestyle doesn't mean you absolutely won't. In other words, there is no guaranteed way to bring your chances of developing breast cancer to zero. That's why even if you're doing everything right, it's still important to perform regular self-checks and schedule your annual mammograms. 

Again, the overall risk of developing breast cancer and other types of cancers is a complicated mesh of various components that is yet to be fully understood, and your individual risk exists somewhere on a spectrum based on those factors. While you certainly can't control every contributing element, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is an important way you can reduce that risk. 

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

A pink ribbon promoting breast cancer awareness by debunking breast cancer myths

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Read more: Breast Cancer Awareness Month is all about sharing information to save lives. To learn more about breast cancer, read our blog and pass it on!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.