Myths and Facts About Breast Cancer

Our experts set the record straight on common misconceptions about this disease.

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Breast cancer may be one of the most-talked-about cancers (we’ve all read the stats, right? One in eight women will get it at some point in her life), but there’s still a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to who gets breast cancer, what causes it, and what the outcomes are likely to be. This leads to myths about breast cancer that can make receiving—and getting your head around—a diagnosis even more distressing and overwhelming. Let’s take a look at some common breast cancer myths and separate the fact from the fiction.


Myth: Every Woman With Breast Cancer Needs a Mastectomy

Many women with early-stage breast cancer are given the option of breast-conserving surgery (BCS) or mastectomy. In most cases, lumpectomy plus radiation therapy offers better survival rates than mastectomy (with or without radiation) for women with early-stage breast cancer. When Belinda Rosenblum, 51, from Littleton, MA, was diagnosed with stage 0-1 breast cancer in June 2022, she was unsure whether to go for a mastectomy (followed by reconstructive surgery) or a smaller lumpectomy. After genetic screening, which came back negative for any hereditary predispositions, she proceeded with the lumpectomy in the affected breast.


Fact: Breast Cancer Can Be Hereditary

About 5% to 10% of breast cancer cases are believed to be hereditary, meaning they are caused by mutations in certain genes passed down in families. An inherited mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene is the most common cause of hereditary breast cancer. “It’s important to discuss your family history of any cancer with your oncologist or surgeon or let them know if your family history is unknown,” says Sara Nunnery, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine in hematology/oncology at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, TN. These genetic mutations can be identified with genetic testing (usually a blood test), she adds.


Myth: Too Much Sugar Causes Breast Cancer

There’s no evidence that sugar causes or “feeds” breast cancer. Although it’s true that cancer cells consume sugar in the blood (glucose) more quickly than normal cells, there isn’t any evidence that excessive sugar intake causes cancer. However, we do know that eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain, and being overweight is an established risk factor for breast cancer. For health reasons, Dr. Nunnery recommends maintaining a healthy weight by eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains (this can also help with energy and lower the risk of recurrence).

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Fact: Mammograms Can’t “Spread” Breast Cancer

A mammogram may be uncomfortable, as the breasts are flattened to provide the best quality picture. But a mammogram can’t cause or spread cancer, says Marisa Corcoran, 38, from Atlanta, GA, who was diagnosed with stage 0-1 breast cancer in June 2022. “My gynecologist sent me for my first mammogram for a completely different reason. If I had waited until the ‘normal’ age for a first mammogram, I wouldn’t have had the early diagnosis.” (Note: The official recommendation for the age for a first mammogram varies by organization; talk with your doctor about what’s right for you.)


Myth: Underarm Antiperspirant Causes Breast Cancer

Those rumors about the chemicals in underarm antiperspirants causing cancer by penetrating the lymph nodes and breast cells don’t have any evidence; nor is it true that antiperspirants stop the release of toxic substances from the underarm lymph nodes by preventing sweating. There’s no evidence of a link between antiperspirant use and breast cancer, but 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, and the safety of antiperspirants is still being studied.


Fact: Wearing a Bra Doesn’t Cause Breast Cancer

The myth that wearing a bra can increase the risk of breast cancer has managed to persist for years, despite lack of any conclusive evidence showing this to be the case. The theory was that wearing a bra (particularly an underwire style) could compress the breast’s lymphatic system, causing toxic substances to build up in the tissue. However, a 2014 study of women with breast cancer found no link between bra-wearing and the disease. The same goes for an injury, like a fall or punch in the chest—there’s no reliable evidence to support this myth.


Myth: Breast Cancer Only Happens When You’re Over 40

Although being female and growing older are the main risk factors for breast cancer (most breast cancers are diagnosed in women over 50, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), younger women and men can—and do—get it as well. From 2000 to 2014 in the U.S.,5.6% of all invasive breast cancer was diagnosed in women under 40. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2022, about 2,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed and about 530 men will die from breast cancer.

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Fact: Breast Cancer Can Be Hard to Spot

Megan-Claire Chase, 46, from Atlanta, GA, had a screening mammogram at age 35 due to a family history of cancer. It came back negative, and she was told to have her next one five years later. When Chase started experiencing unusual symptoms, several different specialists ruled out breast cancer because of the clear mammogram and the absence of a lump or any of the other more common symptoms. She persisted for two years and only after feeling something in her breast was she given another mammogram and diagnosed with stage IIA breast cancer. Breast cancer can be harder to detect in denser breasts and in younger women.


Myth: After Treatment, You’re Done With Breast Cancer

Treatment might be over, but the impact of breast cancer can linger. A week after her first surgery, Rosenblum learned that the border of normal tissue removed along with the tumor wasn’t large enough, and a second surgery was required. “I wish I could have been more prepared for the possibility,” she says. Chase wishes someone had told her about the potential impact on her overall quality of life, even after treatment ended. “I underestimated the fatigue plaguing me years later and that I would have to learn how my body works post-cancer,” she says. Keep working with your doctor, even after treatment, for the best ways to navigate life post-breast cancer.

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