Approximately 250,000 women will be diagnosed with new cases of invasive breast cancer in 2016, according to the American Cancer Society. However, within the United States, there are more than 2.8 million breast cancer survivors who have undergone successful treatment. These statistics remind us there are two sides to every story, and that a well-informed understanding of breast cancer functions can be the best arsenal for prevention. I spoke with Dr. Brian O’Hea, Chief of Breast and Oncologic Surgery at Stony Brook Medicine and Director of the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Center, to dispel breast cancer myths.
I won’t get breast cancer because no one in my family has it.
Considering much ambiguity surrounding the causes of cancer, it is important for women not to make assumptions regarding their level of risk. “While some cases of breast cancer are clearly hereditary, many women who get breast cancer are the first in their family to be affected.” Women at average risk for breast cancer, meaning they have no personal or family history of breast cancer and have not experienced any radiation to the chest, are strongly encouraged to begin annual mammograms as early as 40, and most certainly between the ages of 45 and 54. While it is imperative to first consult a doctor on any risks surrounding examinations, genetic testing coupled with regular screening is the best way to early detection and better treatment outcomes.
Most people with breast cancer will die from their disease.
“While breast cancer is a devastating disease for many, 2 out of 3 women will be long term survivors.” Early detection is everything when it comes to breast cancer prognoses, which is why regular mammograms upon reaching the appropriate age and self-examinations are critical. Screening tests can find tumors before a woman is symptomatic, meaning the cancer is less likely to have spread beyond breast tissue. This makes treatment easier, less invasive and yields higher survival rates for women diagnosed with the disease.
Finding a lump in your breast means you have breast cancer.
While finding a lump in the breast can be scary, it is more likely to be a harmless cyst or fibrosis than cancer. Often times fibrocystic changes in the breast coincide with normal movement through menstrual cycle stages. If deemed necessary by your doctor, a minimally invasive biopsy can help indicate whether a lump is in fact cancerous. This involves the insertion of a coring needle (roughly 2mm in width) to sample the area, resulting in a small incision that can be closed with a band-aid. “Lumps and any other changes in the breasts should be reported to a doctor, but most turn out to be benign.”
Mastectomies are more effective than lumpectomies.
Many women believe that choosing a mastectomy over a lumpectomy increases chance of survival but there is no evidence to support this claim. “The chances of cancer coming back on the chest are lower with a mastectomy, however in terms of survival, an appropriately formed lumpectomy is an equivalent option.” Women may have a particular preference in terms of comfort and emotional strain, but either method should be carefully considered depending on the circumstances of each individual case.
Undergoing a mastectomy is a way to avoid chemotherapy.
Decisions surrounding chemotherapy are based on the kind of tumor a patient has, not the operation one chooses. Many women won’t need chemotherapy independently of the decision to undergo surgery. “Less than 50 percent of women receive chemotherapy, but the decision to do so is not based on the choice between a mastectomy or a lumpectomy.” While women are less likely to need chemotherapy after a mastectomy, Dr. O’Hea said the two are not mutually exclusive.
Antiperspirants cause breast cancer.
Aluminum-based compounds are often used as an active ingredient in mainstream deodorant lines. These metallic mixtures temporarily seal underarm sweat ducts and prevent perspiration from breaking the skin’s surface. “People inaccurately believe that if you can’t sweat, your toxins build up and may potentially lead to a tumor, but there’s no evidence to suggest that antiperspirants can cause cancer.” Studies investigating the relationship between antiperspirant use and underarm shaving habits in relation to breast cancer have yet to find any causal link between underarm hygiene and diagnoses.
Men do not get breast cancer.
Breast cancer is not unique to women. Dr. O’Hea asserted that although male breast cancer incidences represent less than 1 percent of all cases, men can still be affected. Gynecomastia is the most common male breast disorder, which encompasses an increase in breast tissue due to a hormonal imbalance rather than the presence of a tumor. Similarly to breast cancer in women, it presents itself as a lump or growth underneath breast tissue, confirming that men should also conduct regular self examinations to detect any abnormalities.
Breast cancer is an epidemic specific to Long Island.
“The national incidence rate for breast cancer is roughly 130 women per 100,000 per year. The rate of breast cancer on Long Island is about 10 percent higher than the national average, putting us at 145 women per 100,000, but many people misinterpret this statistic as being much higher.” It is important to remain diligent and know your personal risk due to geographic area, family history, gene mutations and other factors, however many women tend to miscalculate breast cancer prevalence as unique to Long Island. Even within New York State there are other counties with higher breast cancer incidences, which means no region or state is alone in this battle.