Social media platforms are a great way to improve health awareness. However most circulating messages and emails, contain information that has not been reviewed by reliable sources. Often search engines direct surfers to blogs and patient forums that are simply personal anecdotes and often misguiding. I caution patients against making any health related decisions based on such information. It can be life-threatening to be misled.
Be Breast-Aware but also Beware of myths. Here are some common misconceptions about breast cancer.
Myth 1) If A Breast Lump Is Not Painful, It Can't be Cancer.
Most breast cancers present as painless lumps in the breast. The lack of pain is common reason women do not find them early and when they do, they do not seek attention with urgency. Breast pain on the other hand especially varying with the menstrual cycle (cyclical mastalgia) is a common problem but almost never a sign of cancer. Any breast lump or swelling should be appropriately investigated, regardless of whether it is painful or not.
Myth 2) Women Who Breast-Feed, Cannot Develop Breast Cancer.
Although breastfeeding decreases risk of breast cancers, the risk is not eliminated. A woman should not assume that because she has breast-fed, she will not develop breast cancer. Few generations ago women had several children and they breast-fed each of them for a 1-2 years. Today women have fewer children and only a small part of the woman’s reproductive years are spent breast-feeding. For an individual woman today, breast feeding should still be strongly encouraged but mainly for the health of the baby.
Myth 3) Fibroadenomas Can Transform To Cancer.
A Fibroadenoma is a benign tumor, not cancerous to any extent. Fibroadenomas do not transform to cancers. They do not increase risk of developing breast cancers. If a needle biopsy has proven with certainty that a growth is benign, it can be observed and does not always need to be surgically removed. However when fibroadenomas grow rapidly, the possibility of a rare tumor called phyllodes may be considered and hence excision may be advised.
Myth 4) A Needle Biopsy Of A Breast Cancer, Causes It To Spread.
A needle biopsy is often advised to complete triple assessment for a breast lump (which includes physical exam, imaging and needle biopsy ) There is no evidence that a needle biopsy would cause spread of the breast tumor. It is a simple OPD procedure done under local anesthesia that can avoid surgery for diagnosis. If a needle biopsy proves a growth to be benign (non-cancerous) unnecessary surgery may be avoided. If a needle biopsy shows cancer, the right treatment plan can be made upfront, avoiding multiple surgeries. You can learn more about needle biopsy here
Myth 5 )Black Bras Cause Breast Cancer.
The type of bra, color or fit of the bra, have nothing to do with breast cancer risk. Common theories floating on the Internet are that bras block circulation, this accumulates toxins, black color absorbs radiation etc. I must say they are all very well cleverly contrived theories but all quite baseless. The bra is mostly an innocent bystander to an accident in the area.
Myth 6) Hysterectomy Increases Breast Cancer Risk.
Having a hysterectomy for problems such as fibroids, heavy bleeding etc. does not increase subsequent breast cancer risk. Women who have had ovaries removed before 45 years, should bear in mind that such surgery does not eliminate your breast cancer risk although it may lower it slightly. You still need to undergo regular breast exams.
Myth 7) A tumor can never recur if the whole breast is removed.
Women that have an early stage breast cancer may be offered options of undergoing a lumpectomy (removal of the area bearing tumor) and radiation versus undergoing a mastectomy (removing the whole breast). In carefully selected patients, both options are equally safe from a survival standpoint. Women often assume that removing the whole breast would completely prevent the tumor from coming back. This unfortunately is not true. Although treatments are designed to minimize risk, women can still have recurrence sometimes years after surgery, regardless of the type of operation. Breast cancer patients need to keep lifelong regular follow up with their oncologists.
Myth 8) Women Who Have No Family History, Will Not Develop Breast Cancer.
Most breast cancer cases occur in women who have no significant family history of breast ovarian or other cancers. Only 5-10% of breast cancers can be attributed to known genetic defects that are inherited. Women are often surprised that they have breast cancer when no-one in their family has it. If you have a breast lump, but no family history, do not assume that it cannot be a serious problem.
Myth 9) Breast Cancer Can be Prevented by Vaccination
Unlike cancer of the uterine cervix (cervical cancer) which can be largely prevented by vaccination against HPV (Human Papilloma Virus), there is no vaccine currently available anywhere in the world to prevent breast cancer. Vaccines that are often discussed in the press are in research for specialized treatments and not for prevention of breast cancer. Exercise, low fat diet, maintaining normal weight, avoiding tobacco or alcohol and minimizing use of hormone replacement therapy can all help decrease risk of breast cancer.
Myth 10) My neighbor got chemo for breast cancer, so that's how I will be treated.
Breast cancer is not one single disease. It is a term that encompasses hundreds of different subtypes at a molecular level, each with its own behavior. Breast cancer treatments are now personalized where the treatment is offered based on the specific characteristics of a patient’s tumor. It is hence very likely that the treatment offered to a friend or family member for a breast cancer will not be the same that you need for yours.