Breast cancer is common enough that we have all encountered it in one way or another. There is much written and said but how much is true and what isn’t?
Here are some commonly perpetuated myths about breast cancer:
- Most people diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history or have genetic mutations. In actual fact ~75% of breast cancer patients do not have a family history. Genetic mutations like BRCA1 and BRCA2 are only seen in about 5-10% of breast cancer patients. The biggest risk factors are being female and getting older although some ethnic groups (including women of African and African-American ancestry) may be disproportionately affected at a young age.
- Getting mammograms regularly can help prevent breast cancer. Mammograms fall in a category called “secondary prevention.” This means that they do not prevent cancer from forming (that would be primary prevention). Instead, they enable us to identify cancer early, when it has already formed.
- Only women can develop breast cancer. Men can develop breast cancer too, although it is quite rare. Some genetic syndromes like BRCA1 may increase risk of male breast cancer. Other risk factors may include prior radiation to the area of the breast and chest wall. If a man notices a breast lump, that should be taken just as seriously and evaluated.
- All breast cancer is treated alike. Breast cancer happens to be an umbrella phrase for several different cancerous diseases that arise in the breast and underarm. Different types are treated differently based on features such as stage, grade, receptors, and so on (see my articles entitled “First appointment essentials 1 and 2”).
- There is no reason to do anything after cutting it out. We have learned over the past century that breast cancer has two parts. I like to say there is a “large piece” and “microscopic piece”. Even after the large piece (seen on mammogram, or felt on exam) has been cut out by a surgeon, microscopic cells remain and can add to risk of cancer growing back (or recurrence). This is why other (= adjuvant) treatments need to be given after surgery, in most cases.
- Chemotherapy can kill me. Not necessarily and in fact, death from chemotherapy is rare. There can be side effects, both short-term and long term. It may not always be possible to predict side effects but with close physician follow up and prompt reporting of issues, most patients do well. Further, there is a lot that can be done to prevent and manage side effects.