"The general concern of patients is that breast cancer is more lethal than it is," says Dr. Jorge Nieva, a Scripps Clinic oncologist and director of translational research for the Scripps Cancer Center in San Diego. "Although breast cancer is still a very scary diagnosis, we cure 75 to 80 percent of all breast cancers."
While arming yourself with information is the first strategy in combating any illness, it's imperative that the information be accurate. Believing myths, rumors and exaggerated claims about breast cancer or any other disease can be devastating to your health.Misinformation can keep you from practicing healthy behaviors or seeking proper care that could possibly save your life.
Although nobody knows the cause of breast cancer, women who know the facts about risk factors may be better able to manage their breast health and schedule regular screenings.
San Diego oncologists, along with the American Cancer Society, help dispel common breast-cancer myths and try to separate fact from fiction.
- MYTH: Breast cancer kills more women than any other illness or disease.
Heart disease kills roughly 12 times as many women as breast cancer annually. And, of the cancers, lung cancer is still the No. 1 killer.
"I think people believe (that breast cancer is the biggest killer) because breast cancer is so common. Everyone knows someone with breast cancer," Nieva says. "Breast cancer often affects women at a younger age than lung cancer ... so it makes a tremendous impression."
- MYTH: Breast cancer is preventable.
"While we know there are drugs that can reduce the risk of cancer in those at high risk, for the general public, there's not much you can do to prevent breast cancer," says Dr. Joanne Mortimer, medical oncologist and deputy director of clinical affairs at the Moores Cancer Center at University of California San Diego.
According to the American Cancer Society, the best preventive health strategy is to reduce known risk factors. These include avoiding obesity and weight gain, increasing physical activity and minimizing alcohol intake. Women should also consider the increased risk of breast cancer associated with hormone-replacement therapy when evaluating treatment options for menopausal symptoms.
- MYTH: One in eight women will get breast cancer.
"That one-in-eight (statistic) is misleading and based on a model that women will live to 100. If all women lived to be very elderly, then one in eight would have breast cancer, but most of those would get it after age 80," Nieva says. The lifetime risk number used to be one in nine; however because women are living longer, they have more time over which to develop breast cancer.
"The increase is related to the aging of this country," Mortimer says. "The bulk of the increase in breast cancer is in the elderly."
- MYTH: If a relative has had breast cancer, you're destined to get it, too.
"You have to look at how strong the family history is. If your mother or sister had breast cancer, your risk is slightly higher than if a cousin or grandmother had it," Mortimer says.
The more close relatives in your family who have had breast cancer (both mother's and father's side of the family), the higher your risk.
Also important is the age at which family members were diagnosed. Cancers discovered when a woman is younger than 50 are likely to be caused by genes that can be passed down rather than cancers that appear later in life.
"If your mother got breast cancer at 85, I wouldn't be terribly concerned," Nieva says. "But if you tell me your mother got it at 50 in both breasts and your sister also got breast cancer, then I'd get very concerned."
- MYTH: If nobody in your family has had breast cancer, you're guaranteed not to get it.
More than 70 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of it. Just because no one in your family has had breast cancer doesn't mean you're protected from it.
"There are no guarantees. Ever," Mortimer says.
- MYTH: Mammograms protect you from breast cancer.
A mammogram only detects the cancer; it doesn't prevent it.
On the other hand, a mammogram can find a tumor before it grows large enough to be felt.
"A cancer found by a mammogram, on average, is found earlier than if you find it yourself," Nieva says. "So, while mammograms don't keep you from getting breast cancer, earlier detection may protect you from dying from it."
- MYTH: Mammograms can't keep you from developing breast cancer, so don't bother with them.
Mammograms are still the best tool doctors have to detect breast cancer early. Every woman should have regular screenings beginning at age 40, according to the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last year credits mammography with a 24 percent drop in breast-cancer deaths in the United States between 1990 and 2000.
"The goal of any screening test is (to make) you less likely to die from the disease," Mortimer says. "If you get a mammogram after menopause, you are less likely to die because (the X-rays) are usually easier to read. Although mammograms are harder to read in younger women (because they often have denser breast tissue), if the test is performed at a quality institution, it still can prevent a woman from dying from breast cancer."
- MYTH: Finding a lump in your breast means you have cancer.
Eight out of 10 lumps are not cancer, the American Cancer Society says.
More often, they're cysts or a reaction to normal hormonal fluctuations.
And a suspicious mammogram doesn't necessarily mean it's cancer. Sometimes, the technology just isn't that accurate.
- MYTH: Breast cancer will kill you if you get it.
There are more than 2 million breast-cancer survivors in the United States today. Death rates have dropped 3 percent to 4 percent each year since 1995, thanks to earlier detection and better treatments, according to the American Cancer Society.
"About three-quarters of women who have been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer will go on to live a normal life and die from something else," Mortimer says.
- MYTH: If you are cancer-free for five years after a breast cancer diagnosis, you are cured.
"This is a sad myth. Breast cancer can be a very chronic process. There are women who have gone 30 years (cancer-free), and then the cancer will show up someplace else in the body," Mortimer says.
- MYTH: If you find out you have breast cancer, you have to act immediately.
A heart attack is an emergency. Breast cancer is not.
Breast cancer is actually a slow-moving disease. You have time to decide who you want to work with, talk to different doctors and assess your options.
"The breast cancer didn't get there overnight. The time it takes for a cancer cell to become a tumor is years," Nieva says. "Although I don't advocate waiting months and months to get it taken care of, you don't have to get it taken care of tomorrow."
- MYTH: Antiperspirant deodorants can cause breast cancer.
"Some believe that aluminum can cause some cancers in some animals. That's probably where this came from," Mortimer says. "People may think that if you block the sweat glands, it can cause cancer. There's no truth to any of it."
Another Internet myth said that under-wire bras caused breast cancer. False, say the doctors.
- MYTH: Breast implants can cause breast cancer.
"This has been a big concern of women since so many have implants. However, there's no evidence that the risk of breast cancer is increased for someone with implants. There's also no evidence that if a mammogram is done on a regular basis with proper imaging, it will miss (a cancer) on breasts with implants," Mortimer says.