Unless people experience breast cancer in their own lives, or they’re close to someone who does, they might not be able to separate myth from fact when it comes to this disease: who gets it and why, for example, or what treatment involves. True, breast cancer is one of the better-known and more-talked-about cancers, but there are still so many misconceptions out there.
MYTH: If I don’t have a family history of breast cancer, I won’t get it.
FACT: Most people diagnosed with breast cancer have no known family history.
Many people think of breast cancer as an inherited disease. But only about 5–10% of breast cancers are believed to be hereditary, meaning they’re caused by abnormal changes (or mutations) in certain genes passed from parent to child. The vast majority of people who get breast cancer have no family history, suggesting that other factors must be at work, such as environment and lifestyle. But doctors often can’t explain why one person gets breast cancer and another doesn’t. The biggest risk factors are simply being a woman and growing older. Over time, healthy breast cells can develop mutations on their own, eventually turning into cancer cells. Still, if you have a strong family history of breast cancer on either your mother’s or your father’s side, this is an important risk factor that should be taken seriously. If there are one or more cases of breast cancer in close blood relatives, especially before age 50, and/or other cancers such as ovarian and prostate cancer in men.
MYTH: Using underarm antiperspirant can cause breast cancer.
FACT: There is no evidence of a connection between underarm antiperspirant and breast cancer, but the safety of antiperspirants is still being studied. There have been persistent rumors that underarm antiperspirants, especially those containing aluminum and other chemicals, are absorbed into the lymph nodes and make their way into breast cells, increasing cancer risk. Shaving the underarms was thought to make this worse by creating tiny nicks that allow more of the chemicals to enter the body. Another theory was that antiperspirants, by stopping underarm sweating, can prevent the release of toxic substances from the underarm lymph nodes, also increasing cancer risk. However, there is no evidence of a link between antiperspirant use and breast cancer. Still, some studies have found that women who use aluminum products under their arms are more likely to have higher concentrations of aluminum in breast tissue.
MYTH: Breast cancer always causes a lump you can feel.
FACT: Breast cancer might not cause a lump, especially when it first develops.
People are sometimes under the impression that breast cancer always causes a lump that can be felt during a self-exam. They might use this as a reason to skip mammograms, thinking they’ll be able to feel any change that might indicate a problem. However, breast cancer doesn’t always cause a lump. By the time it does, the cancer might have already moved beyond the breast into the lymph nodes. Although performing breast self-exams is certainly a good idea, it isn’t a substitute for regular screening with mammography. There are some other myths about what types of breast lumps are less worrisome, such as: “If the lump is painful, it isn’t breast cancer,” and “If you can feel a lump that is smooth, and/or that moves around freely under the skin, it’s not breast cancer.” Any lump or unusual mass that can be felt through the skin needs to be checked out by a healthcare professional. Although most lumps are benign (not cancer), there is always the possibility of breast cancer.
MYTH: Breast cancer only happens to middle-aged and older women.
FACT: Younger women can and do get breast cancer, as do men.
It is true that being female and growing older are the main risk factors for developing breast cancer. In 2017, about 4% of invasive breast cancers were diagnosed in women under age 40, while about 23% were diagnosed in women in their 50s and 27% in women ages 60 to 69.
While 4% might sound small, it isn’t zero: This percentage means that one in every 25 invasive breast cancer cases occurred in women under 40. Women of all ages need to pay attention to their breasts, perform self-exams, and report any unusual changes to their doctors — and insist that breast cancer be ruled out if there’s a concerning symptom. Even some doctors buy into the myth that women in their 20s and 30s don’t get breast cancer. Women with a strong family history of breast cancer, especially cancers diagnosed in relatives before age 40, may wish to start screenings sooner. Breast cancer is even rarer in men, but it does happen. People often think that men can’t get breast cancer because they don’t have breasts — but they do have breast tissue. Male breast cancer accounts for less than 1% of all breast cancers diagnosed in the U.S. In 2019, about 2,670 men are expected to be diagnosed with the disease. Even though male breast cancer is rare, it tends to be diagnosed at a more advanced stage because breast changes and lumps typically don’t lead men and their doctors to think “breast cancer.” Changes in male breasts need to be checked out, too.