Fact or fiction: Breast cancer myths

When it comes to breast cancer, there are a lot of myths floating around. As Breast Cancer Awareness Month comes to a close, here’s the real deal.

Myth: Only women with a family history of breast cancer are at risk.

Reality: Roughly 70 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no identifiable risk factors for the disease. The family-history risks are these: If a first-degree relative (a parent, sibling or child) has had or has breast cancer, your risk of developing the disease approximately doubles. Having two first-degree relatives with the disease increases your risk even more.

Myth: Wearing an underwire bra increases your risk of getting breast cancer.

Reality: Claims that underwire bras compress the lymphatic system of the breast, causing toxins to accumulate and cause breast cancer, have been widely debunked as unscientific. 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: Most breast lumps are cancerous.

Reality: Roughly 80 percent of lumps in women’s breasts are caused by benign (noncancerous) changes, cysts or other conditions. Doctors encourage women to report any changes at all, however, because catching breast cancer early is so beneficial. Your doctor may recommend a mammogram, ultrasound, or biopsy to determine whether a lump is cancerous.

Myth: Breast implants can raise your cancer risk.

Reality: Women with breast implants are at no greater risk of getting breast cancer, according to research. Standard mammograms don’t always work as well on these women, however, so additional X-rays are sometimes needed to more fully examine breast tissue.

Myth: Breast cancer always comes in the form of a lump.

Reality: A lump may indicate breast cancer (or one of many benign breast conditions), but women should also be on the alert for other kinds of changes that may be signs of cancer. They include swelling, skin irritation or dimpling, breast or nipple pain, nipple turning inward, redness, scaliness, thickening of the nipple or breast skin or a discharge other than breast milk.

Myth: Perms cause breast cancer in African-American women.

Reality: A large 2007 study funded by the National Cancer Institute found no increase in breast cancer risk due to the use of hair straighteners or relaxers. Study participants included African-American women who had used straighteners seven or more times a year for 20 years or longer.

Myth: After heart disease, breast cancer is the nation’s leading killer of women.

Reality: Breast cancer kills roughly 40,000 women a year in the United States but stroke (96,000 deaths), lung cancer (71,000), and chronic lower respiratory disease (67,000) are each responsible for more deaths annually.

Myth: If you’re at risk for breast cancer, there’s little you can do but watch for the signs.

Reality: There’s a lot that women can do to lower their risk, including losing weight if they’re obese, getting regular exercise, lowering or eliminating alcohol consumption, being rigorous about examining their own breasts, and having regular clinical exams and mammograms. Quitting smoking wouldn’t hurt either.