Breast Cancer: Myths & Facts

Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN, AOCN and Suzanne McGettigan, MSN, CRNP, AOCN
The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: February 14, 2007

Myth: I have pain in my breast, so I must have breast cancer.

Fact: Pain in the breast is common and can be caused by several things, but it is not usually associated with breast cancer. You should make notes about when the pain occurs in relation to the menstrual cycle, how long does it last and if there is anything that seems to trigger the pain or relieve it. Often times, breast pain will resolve on its own, but, if it does not, you should see your healthcare provider. Some common causes of breast pain include: hormonal changes during menstruation, birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, weight gain, fluid retention (swelling), or a poorly fitting bra. There is even some research to say caffeine can contribute to water retention that leads to breast pain.

Myth: A teenage girl who finds a “lump” must have breast cancer.

Fact: Although breast cancer can occasionally affect women as young as their mid-twenties, it would be unlikely for a teenager to have breast cancer. A lump found in a teenager is usually a fibroadenoma, which is not a cancer. These lumps feel hard and round, but do not usually cause any pain. They can be surgically removed if they become bothersome.

Myth: Men do not get breast cancer.

Fact: Breast cancer in men accounts for about 1% of all breast cancers cases (men & women combined) and about 0.2% of all types of cancers in men. There will be about 1,690 new cases of male breast cancer in 2005, compared to 213,000 new cases in women.

Myth: Having a mammogram causes breast cancer or causes an already existing cancer to spread.

Fact: Mammography does not cause breast cancer. Mammography cannot cause a known breast cancer to spread. The compression (flattening) of the breast tissue during a mammogram does not cause breast cancer and does not cause a known breast cancer to spread.

Mammography does expose a woman to a low amount of radiation. It is an extremely small amount of radiation and is at a level far below any regulatory limits. However, if you are pregnant you should notify your health care provider prior to having a mammogram.

Myth: I have breast implants and can't have mammograms.

Fact: Mammography can be performed in women who have had breast implants. Women who have had breast implants should continue to have screening mammograms according to the guidelines established by the National Cancer Institute. A woman with breast implants should notify the center performing her mammogram that she has breast implants. Implants can occasionally block some views of the breast, but notifying the technologist performing the mammogram that you have breast implants allows special techniques to be used to make sure that as much tissue as possible can be seen on the mammogram. Additional pictures may be taken of the breasts of women with implants, so the test could take a few minutes longer.

Now, in women who have had breast reconstruction following mastectomy, there is often minimal breast tissue remaining on the side of the mastectomy. Your doctor may decide that mammograms are no longer necessary on the breast(s) that were removed.

Myth: Injury to the breast causes cancer.

Fact: Injury to the breast does not cause breast cancer. If the breast is bruised badly, there may be an accumulation of blood under the skin that can feel like a lump. The body will reabsorb this over time, just as any bruise heals.

Myth: Antiperspirant and/or deodorant causes breast cancer.

Fact: There have been reports that antiperspirants and deodorants (AP / D) contain chemicals that can be absorbed through nicks due to shaving and cause breast cancer. There have actually been a few studies looking at this. The first study showed no increased risk of breast cancer in women who used antiperspirant or deodorant without or without shaving the underarm area (they even asked whether an electric razor or regular razor was used). The second study is what has caused all of the concern – Paraben is a preservative found in cosmetics and AP / D that acts like an estrogen in the body. Researchers examined breast tissue from 20 breast cancer patients and found parabens in that tissue. These researchers did not look at healthy breast tissue or tissue from other parts of the body to check for parabens, so we do not know if all tissues contain parabens. The researchers also did not prove that the parabens they found actually came from AP or D (since so many products contain parabens). They also did not prove that parabens cause breast cancer.

One other surveyed women with breast cancer. They found that those who started using these products at younger ages and used them more frequently were diagnosed with breast cancer at an earlier age. This study did not include any women without breast cancer, which makes it impossible to apply the results to everyone.

Bottom line is – more research is needed. Parabens are a group of preservatives, used to prevent bacterial growth, and are found in many things, including cosmetics, food and beverages. If you want to avoid these parabens, check the ingredient list for any of the following: methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, parahydroxybenzoate or parahydroxybenzoate and find one that doesn't contain them.

Of note, the National Institues of Health have a website that allows you to check the ingredients and safety of household products. It is called the Household Products Database.

Myth: Biopsies and air cause breast cancer to spread

Fact: Biopsies and/or air can not cause breast cancer to spread. The fear of biopsies comes from the concern that sticking a needle into a breast tumor to get a sample or using a scalpel to remove the whole tumor can then move some of those cells to a different place in the breast (by the cells sticking to the needle or dropping cells from the tumor into other places). Studies have not found this to be true for breast cancer biopsies (but it can happen with ovarian cancers). Some people believe that exposing the cancer to air during surgery or biopsy can cause the cancer to spread, this too, is not true.

Myth: Women get breast cancer because of something they did, because they kept their emotions inside, or had low self-esteem.

Fact: A group of researchers in Australia did a study on this topic. They found no increased risk of breast cancer in any of the personality traits they studied. These included mature or immature behavior, neurotic behavior, emotional expression (keeping them in or letting them out), emotional control, self-esteem, anxiety, or depression.

Myth: Hair dye causes cancer.

Fact: Several studies have looked at this issue as well. Today's hair dyes are considered very safe. The most recent study found no increased risk of cancer because of hair dye use. This study was done because a previous study had indicated that there was an increased risk of bladder cancer among hair dye users. The latest study does indicate that more research should be done in relation to hair dyes and leukemias and myeloma, as there appeared to be a slight increase in risk in those areas.


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