By Hanadi Bu-Ali, MD, Breast Surgeon, Wheaton Franciscan Comprehensive Breast Care Program
Every October, you tend to see a sea of pink ribbons and activities centered around breast cancer awareness. Here in Wisconsin, close to 4,500 people will learn they have breast cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society.
Fortunately, over time, more and more women have taken measures to detect and treat breast cancer at an early stage. In fact, the National Cancer Institute estimates that approximately 2.5 million women with a history of breast cancer were alive in January 2006, most of them cancer-free.
What this tells us is that we are taking serious steps in beating this disease, but breast cancer still claims lives – more than 62,000 women and men each year in the US. As we have uncovered ways for us to try to decrease the risk and improve survival, there is still a lot of misinformation out there that might hinder our progress in treating the disease.
As a physician who consults with individuals on their risks in developing breast cancer, I’d like to help clear the air on some circulating myths*:
Myth: Mammograms cause spread of breast cancer.
Fact: Neither the small amount of radiation nor the pressure placed on the breast from the mammogram can cause breast cancer to spread.
Myth: If I have a breast lump, it's cancer.
Fact: Many breast lumps felt are not cancer, and may actually be cysts or a benign condition called fibroadenoma. Regardless, all lumps should be checked thoroughly by a physician.
Myth: If no one in your family has had breast cancer, you won't get it.
Fact: 80-85 of women with breast cancer have no family history of the disease. Even if no one in your family has ever been diagnosed, you should still get an annual mammogram.
Myth: Your genetic risk of getting breast cancer comes only from your mother's side of the family.
Fact: Half of your genes come from your mother and half from your father. Therefore both sides of your family influence your risk equally. That is why it's crucial to share family history on both sides of the family with your physician.
Myth: Eating high-fat foods causes breast cancer.
Fact: Fatty foods contribute to excess body weight, which is a risk factor. Excess body fat gets transformed into estrogen adding to the overall level of estrogen in the body, and estrogen stimulates the proliferation of both normal breast cells as well as the majority of breast cancer cells.
Myth: The majority of breast cancer patients carry a BRCA gene mutation.
Fact: While changes in these genes increase the risk for developing breast cancer to a lifetime risk as high as 80%, only 5 to 10% of breast cancer patients actually have the mutation.
Myth: If I'm diagnosed with breast cancer, it means I'm going to die.
Fact: As mentioned earlier, medicine has advanced over the years in treating breast cancer. Individuals with 10-year survival rates are currently at 85-90%. Up to 98% of women survive at least five years after diagnosis. Breast cancer that has metastasized - or spread to other parts of the body - poses a greater challenge, although women with metastatic breast cancer often live for years with their disease. The main reason for this high survival rate is early detection with the majority detected at stage 0, 1 or 2.
Myth: Herbal remedies and dietary supplements can help treat breast cancer.
Fact: No herbal remedy, dietary supplement or alternative therapy has been scientifically proven to treat breast cancer.
For more information
- Visit our Health Library for more information about breast cancer.
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*Sources: National Breast Cancer Foundation, The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center and www.MayoClinic.com.