October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and it seems you can’t pick up a magazine or check your Facebook feed without bumping into news and advice. Yet, sifting through all that information may make you wonder if what you’re reading is true or just a load of bad science. To help dispel some of the more common breast cancer myths, we asked Dr. Preya Ananthakrishnan, Director of Breast Surgery at White Plains Hospital, to weigh in.
Myth 1: A lump = breast cancer.
The good news is that many lumps are benign. “Very often, they turn out to be cysts or benign fibroadenomas,” explains Dr. Ananthakrishnan. If you do feel something unusual under your skin, get it checked out. Further testing, using imaging, can determine whether a given lump is a solid mass that needs more attention or a fluid-filled sac that can be drained or even left alone.
Myth 2: If I don’t have a family history of breast cancer, I am not at risk for it.
Most people with breast cancer have no family history. “Up to 85 percent of women who get breast cancer have little or no family history. Only 15 percent of women who receive a breast cancer diagnosis have a genetic predisposition to the disease,” says Dr. Ananthakrishnan. Many people think breast cancer risk comes only from their mother’s side of the family, but inherited genes can come from either the mother or father’s side.
Myth 3: Mammograms expose you to radiation, which can increase your cancer risk.
“Having a mammogram exposes you to less radiation than you experience just by walking around in everyday life, and it’s usually performed just once a year,” says Dr. Ananthakrishnan. If your doctor recommends a mammogram, don’t put it off because of the tiny amount of radiation that comes with it.
Myth 4: Drinking alcohol won’t make much difference in terms of breast cancer risk.
An occasional drink is probably fine, but bear in mind that drinking alcohol does increase breast cancer risk. According to experts, women who have two or three drinks a day have a 20 percent higher risk of developing the disease. Your best bet? “Stay under 3 drinks a week,” recommends Dr. Ananthakrishnan.
Myth 5: All breast cancers are treated the same way.
Many different factors impact how breast cancer is treated, including cancer size and type, grade and stage, and specific receptor testing on the cancer. Genetic testing results can also impact treatment recommendations. “Breast cancer treatment is no longer a one-size-fits-all approach, and the good news about getting a breast cancer diagnosis in 2022 is that treatments are more tailored to each individual’s cancer, thereby limiting side effects as much as possible,” says Dr. Ananthakrishnan.
Myth 6: Breast cancer only happens to older women.
The main risk factors for getting breast cancer are being female and growing older. However, breast cancer can also occur in younger women, and also in men. “It is important to be aware of what’s going on with your breasts, and note any new findings and discuss with your doctors,” recommends Dr. Ananthakrishnan. Women with a strong family history of breast cancer, particularly at ages less than 40, may discuss with their doctor and start breast cancer screenings earlier.