Breast cancer affects nearly 55,000 women in the UK every year but there are so many myths about the condition, it can be hard to tell fact from fiction.
At the start of Breast Cancer Awareness month, Nuffield Health’s professional head of mammography, Sue Oliver, is here to help set the record straight and help you keep healthy.
Myth: Most breast lumps are cancerous
Discovering a lump doesn’t mean you have breast cancer. Around 80% of breast lumps are caused by benign (noncancerous) changes, cysts, or other conditions but it is a good idea to have all lumps checked to be sure.
Myth: Breast cancer always comes in the form of a lump
A lump is just one indication of breast cancer. Other breast changes to look out for such include changes to breast skin (swelling, skin irritation or dimpling), changes to the shape and size of the breasts, breast or nipple pain, nipple inversion, redness, scaliness, thickening of the nipple or breast skin, or a discharge other than breast milk.
Myth: If you’re at risk for breast cancer, there’s little you can do but watch for the signs
There are many things you can do to lower your risk of cancer. Losing weight, taking regular exercise, lowering alcohol consumption, examining your breasts regularly and stopping smoking are all positive steps to take.
Myth: Only women with a family history of breast cancer are at risk
It is estimated that around 70% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors for the disease. The family-history risks to be aware of are:
- One first degree female relative diagnosed with breast cancer aged younger than 40 (a first degree relative is your parent, brother or sister, or your child).
- One first degree male relative diagnosed with breast cancer at any age.
- One first degree relative with cancer in both breasts where the first cancer was diagnosed aged younger than 50.
- Two first degree relatives, or one first degree and one second degree relative, diagnosed with breast cancer at any age (second degree relatives are aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, and grandchildren).
- One first degree or second degree relative diagnosed with breast cancer at any age and one first degree or second degree relative diagnosed with ovarian cancer at any age (one of these should be a first degree relative).
- Three first degree or second degree relatives diagnosed with breast cancer at any age.
Myth: Wearing an underwire bra increases your risk of getting breast cancer
Claims that underwire bras compress the lymphatic system of the breast, causing toxins to accumulate and cause breast cancer, are not backed up by any scientific research. The consensus is that neither the type of bra you wear nor the tightness of your underwear or other clothing has any connection to breast cancer risk.
Myth: Wearing antiperspirant increases your risk of getting breast cancer
There are claims that parabens, used as preservatives in some antiperspirants, have weak oestrogen-like properties and may contribute to breast cancer development. But no cause-and-effect connection between parabens and breast cancer has been established.
Myth: Small-breasted women have less chance of getting breast cancer
Very small breasts and very large breast can be difficult to examine using mammography and MRI but there is no evidence to show that women with small breasts are less likely to develop breast cancer. Mammographers are specially trained to ensure women of all sizes can be screened. More important than size is the type of tissue the breast is made of. Very dense tissue, which shows up white on a mammogram, can make it difficult to detect small cancers.
Myth: Caffeine causes breast cancer
No causal connection has been found between drinking caffeine and getting breast cancer. In fact, some research suggests that caffeine may actually lower your risk. So far it’s inconclusive whether breast soreness may be linked to caffeine.
Myth: Women with lumpy breasts (fibrocystic breast changes) have a higher risk of developing breast cancer
In the past, women with lumpy, dense or fibrocystic breasts were believed to be at higher risk of getting breast cancer, but there doesn’t appear to be a connection after all. However, when you have lumpy breasts, it can be trickier to differentiate normal tissue from cancerous tissue, so you should report any changes to your GP.
Myth: Mammograms expose you to so much radiation that they increase your risk of cancer
While it is true that radiation is used in mammography, the amount is so small that any associated risks are tiny when compared to the huge preventive benefits gained from the test. Mammograms can detect lumps well before they can be felt or otherwise noticed, and the earlier that lumps are caught, the better one’s chances of a positive outcome.