Busted: 14 Common Myths Surrounding Breast Cancer

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Photo: Courtesy of Chris Liverani

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women. By the time we reach adulthood, all of us will have been affected by this disease in one way or another – whether a friend, a family member, a distant relative, or we ourselves have been diagnosed. That being said, deaths due to breast cancer are declining; according to a report by Gulf News, “Breast cancer death rates have declined from 8.7 per 100,000 women in 2009 to five per 100,000 women in 2014, with late detection of the disease going down from 64 percent in 2009 to 16 percent in 2013.” This is in part due to increased awareness and understanding of the disease, which is crucial.

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Goodness tapped Dr. Houriya Kazim, surgeon and founder of breast-cancer support group Brest Friends, to bust some of the most common myths about the disease.

Myth: You only need to check for breast cancer after the age of 40.

Truth: It’s wise to be breast aware, as part of a full body awareness, from the age of 18 or so. Learning what your body looks like and feels like is important from a young age. Once a woman is sexually active, she should be visiting her GP or gynaecologist at least once a year and she can have her breasts examined during those visits. In terms of “screening” for breast cancer using mammograms, I tend to individualize this according to the patient’s family history, their own personal history, density of breasts, whether they are on any hormone therapy, etc.

Myth: Chemotherapy works on all kinds of breast cancers.

Truth: There are many different type of breast cancers, and possible treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy, and immunotherapy. What treatment option we choose will depend on what type of cancer it is. Research has also shown chemotherapy to be much more effective on fast-diving cancer cells than slow-diving ones.

Myth: Breast cancer is hereditary. 

Truth: Less than ten percent of breast cancer is due to an inherited mutation.

Myth: Antiperspirants and deodorants can cause breast cancer.

Truth: This theory is backed by claims that antiperspirants stop the body from sweating out toxins and that these toxins build up in the lymph glands under the armpit and cause breast cancer. What’s more, antiperspirants block our pores using aluminum particles, which people fear can cause cancer.

Deodorants, meanwhile, have been found to contain hormone-disrupting chemicals, further supporting this idea. That being said, the jury is still out on this one as no study has returned conclusive evidence to confirm or deny this idea.

Myth: Regular mammograms prevent breast cancer. 

Truth: Regular mammograms pick breast cancer up early. So rather than waiting until you can feel a lump, mammography is an X-ray of the breast that can pick it up in its early stages.

Myth: Only women can get breast cancer. 

Truth: About one percent of breast cancer cases are in men.

Myth: A double mastectomy is a good preventive measure for breast cancer. 

Truth: We would only advise this if the patient is known to be carrying a genetic mutation that increases their risk of breast cancer. In such women, the risk would be above 80 percent, which would make the procedure worthwhile. These women are then offered immediate breast reconstruction.

Myth: Wearing an under-wire bra can cause breast cancer.

Truth: One study by husband-and-wife duo Singer and Grismaijer suggested that underwired bras constrict the body’s lymph glands, leading to breast cancer. However, the study wasn’t considered fit for peer review, and there have been no studies since that have proved a link between wearing a tight bra and breast cancer.  

Myth: An injury to the breast can cause cancer. 

Truth: An injury such as falling or being hit in the chest will not increase breast cancer risk. It may cause bruising and swelling to the breast. Sometimes this bruising may lead to a benign lump (not cancer) known as fat necrosis, which occurs when the fatty breast tissue swells, becomes tender, and forms a lump. As the body naturally repairs the damaged breast tissue, scar tissue could form in its place.

Myth: Drinking from plastic bottles can give you breast cancer. 

Truth: There is evidence of leakage of chemicals from plastic when it’s heated, and some of these chemicals are known hormone disruptors. However, at this very moment, we don’t have any solid evidence of a link between plastic bottles and breast cancer.

Myth: You can get cancer from a nipple piercing.

Truth: A nipple piercing will not increase the risk of breast cancer, but it may increase the risk of infection, and breastfeeding later in life may be difficult if the milk ducts are damaged.

Myth: The contraceptive pill will give you breast cancer if you take it for too long.

Truth: Numerous studies have looked at whether taking the oral contraceptive pill increases the risk of developing breast cancer. These have produced conflicting results, with some finding an increased risk and others not.

Experts agree that any increase in risk is likely to be small and only applies when you are taking the pill. Within ten years of stopping, the risk returns to that of someone who has never taken the contraceptive pill. Breast cancer is rare in younger women, for whom taking the pill is still an effective contraceptive. If you’re worried about taking the pill, discuss it with your GP.

Myth: There is no link between your diet and breast cancer.

Truth: Eating a healthy diet can actually reduce the risk of getting some types of cancers later in life. It can also protect against heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, and diabetes. In contrast, those who don’t eat a healthy diet and are significantly overweight have an increased risk of getting breast cancer as they get older.

Myth: Sunbathing topless can cause breast cancer.

Truth: It won’t, but because the skin on the breast is delicate, it’s more likely to get burnt than other areas of the body. Also, over-exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight and from sun beds can cause skin cancer. To reduce this risk, always limit time in the sun, use a sunscreen with a high sun-protection factor (SPF), be careful never to burn, and cover up with a hat, shirt, and sunglasses.

Dr. Houriya Kazim is a specialized breast surgeon and the medical director and founder of the Well Woman Clinic. She is a UAE national and the country’s first female surgeon.