Myths about breast cancer risk are quite easy to come by. You might hear them in a casual conversation or read about them on social media. The disease affects many, which means many take interest in it. But the more something is talked about, the more myths can come about and persist, and that's certainly true when it comes to breast cancer.
Here are several popular myths about your breast cancer risk—and the facts that dispel them. Root your prevention efforts in research, not hearsay.
Only Older Women Get Breast Cancer
The risk of getting breast cancer does rise as you age, but young women can get breast cancer before menopause. By the age of 40, the risk of breast cancer is 1.5%.1 Ten years later, the risk rises another 2.4%. By the age of 60, your risk climbs another 3.5%. And by 70, your overall lifetime risk of getting breast cancer is 11.5%.
Younger women might overlook the signs and symptoms of breast cancer at an early stage. And because screening mammograms are recommended after age 40, younger women do not have the advantage of early detection.2 Routine breast self-examinations can help in detecting lumps at any age.
And, even if you test positive for breast cancer genes, you might not develop the disease. If you have a hereditary risk of breast cancer based on your family history or your genetic test results, habits like avoiding cigarettes and excess alcohol may reduce your chances of getting breast cancer.6
Pregnancy and Breastfeeding Will Protect Me
While it is true that having at least two pregnancies before you're 30 and breastfeeding your babies can lower your risk of getting breast cancer, it is not a guarantee of protection.7 Even if you are in a relatively low-risk group, it is important that you get regular screenings and annual checkups with your doctor so that breast cancer (or any medical illness, for that matter) can be detected and treated early.
Antiperspirants Cause Breast Cancer
The idea that deodorant could be linked to breast cancer has gained unwarranted popularity. Systematic scientific investigations have not found any evidence that deodorants, antiperspirants, or cosmetics are related to breast cancer, and the National Cancer Institute has stated that this is not a risk.8
That said, other experts note that there is not sufficient evidence either way and suggest further research trials.
Birth Control Pills Cause Breast Cancer
The association between oral contraceptives and breast cancer is fairly complicated. Birth control pills contain the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which have been linked with an increase in breast cancer risk as well as with a reduced risk of the disease.
That said, the effects of birth control pills on breast cancer risk and prognosis may not be the same for all women.9 Be sure to discuss any family history of breast, ovarian, or uterine cancer with your doctor when making a decision about contraception.
A High-Fat Diet Causes Breast Cancer
Excess body weight in the form of fat results in higher production of estrogen, on top of that which your body already produces. Obesity is associated with infertility, and the connection between estrogen and fat is believed to play a role in that process.
Women who consume a diet high in saturated fat are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer and to have a worse disease course than women who consume a diet low in saturated fat. However, it has not been proven that a diet high in fat will cause breast cancer, and there are no specific recommendations regarding fat intake in the context of breast cancer.
Bras Cause Breast Cancer
This myth, like the myth about deodorant, is based on the idea that a substance near or on the breast could cause breast cancer. However, breast cancer is far more complex than that and is related to cellular changes, genetic mutations, and/or hormones.
That said, there are so many bra manufacturers and many types of materials used in bra fabric that this seems like an exceedingly unlikely cause of breast cancer. And according to the American Cancer Society, there are no scientifically valid studies that show that wearing any type of clothing, including bras, causes breast cancer.11
Surgery Spreads Breast Cancer
Breast cancer surgery is often curative, and many women need to have breast cancer surgery even if the whole tumor cannot be removed.
The idea that cancer could be spread through surgery is rooted in a misunderstanding of cancer. Tumor cells increase in number by replicating.12 They can be aggressive and may invade nearby or distant tissue through expansion or by the invasion of lymphatic vessels.
Surgery does need to be done carefully to prevent excessive bleeding, infections, and prolonged wound healing. But the spread of breast cancer occurs due to the biology of the cells themselves.13
A Diagnosis of Breast Cancer Is a Death Sentence
Diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer have improved significantly in recent years. Now, 90% of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer and who do not have any metastasis (spread of cancer) will survive at least five years after diagnosis—and most live many years beyond that.14
Even if your breast cancer has spread, new treatments and therapies have improved survival rates and quality of life.
No Family History Means No Risk
Anyone with breast tissue—male or female—is at risk for breast cancer.3 The risk is higher for women and with advancing age. If blood relatives have had breast cancer, then you have a higher risk than someone with no history of the disease in their family. But most women who are diagnosed with breast cancer do not have a relative with the disease.4
It is important that you get your regular screening mammograms and regularly do your breast self-examinations, even if you don't have any family history of breast cancer.
A Relative Had Breast Cancer, so I Will Too
Having a family member with breast cancer means that you might carry a hereditary predisposition to the condition, and breast cancer genes increase the risk of getting the disease. But having the disease in your family does not necessarily mean that you or other members of your family carry any of the known breast cancer genes.