Marisa Weiss M.D. is the president and founder of breastcancer.org.
What is your risk of breast cancer? What about antiperspirants and breast cancer? What you don’t know CAN hurt you. Misinformation can keep you from recognizing and minimizing your own risk of breast cancer or getting the very best possible care. Arm yourself with the facts.
1. Breast cancer only affects older women.
No. While it’s true that the risk of breast cancer increases as we grow older, breast cancer can occur at any age. From birth to age 39, one woman in 231 will get breast cancer (<0.5% risk); from age 40-59, the risk is one in 25 (4% risk); from age 60-79, the risk is one in 15 (nearly 7%). Assuming you live to age 90, the risk of getting breast cancer over the course of an entire lifetime is one in 7, with an overall lifetime risk of 14.3%.
2.If you have a risk factor for breast cancer, you’re likely to get the disease.
No. Getting breast cancer is not a certainty, even if you have one of the stronger risk factors, like a breast cancer gene abnormality. Of women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 inherited genetic abnormality, 40-80% will develop breast cancer over their lifetime; 20-60% won’t. All other risk factors are associated with a much lower probability of being diagnosed with breast cancer.
3. If breast cancer doesn’t run in your family, you won’t get it.
No. Every woman has some risk of breast cancer. About 80% of women who get breast cancer have no known family history of the disease. Increasing age – just the wear and tear of living – is the biggest single risk factor for breast cancer. For those women who do have a family history of breast cancer, your risk may be elevated a little, a lot, or not at all. If you are concerned, discuss your family history with your physician or a genetic counselor. You may be worrying needlessly.
4. Only your mother’s family history of breast cancer can affect your risk.
No. A history of breast cancer in your mother’s OR your father’s family will influence your risk equally. That’s because half of your genes come from your mother, half from your father. But a man with a breast cancer gene abnormality is less likely to develop breast cancer than a woman with a similar gene. So, if you want to learn more about your father’s family history, you have to look mainly at the women on your father’s side, not just the men.
5. Using antiperspirants causes breast cancer.
No. There is no evidence that the active ingredient in antiperspirants, or reducing perspiration from the underarm area, influences breast cancer risk. The supposed link between breast cancer and antiperspirants is based on misinformation about anatomy and a misunderstanding of breast cancer.
6. Birth control pills cause breast cancer.
No. Modern-day birth control pills contain a low dose of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Many research studies show no association between birth control pills and an increased risk of breast cancer. However, one study that combined the results of many different studies did show an association between birth control pills and a very small increase in risk. The study also showed that this slight increase in risk decreased over time. So after 10 years, birth control pills were not associated with an increase in risk. Birth control pills also have benefits:
- decreasing ovarian and endometrial cancer risk
- relieving menstrual disorders, pelvic inflammatory disease, and ovarian, and cysts
- improving bone mineral density
As with any medicine, you have to weigh the risks and benefits and decide what is best for you.
7. Eating high-fat foods causes breast cancer.
No. Several large studies have not been able to demonstrate a clear connection between eating high-fat foods and a higher risk of breast cancer. Ongoing studies are attempting to clarify this issue further. We can say that avoidance of high-fat foods is a healthy choice for other reasons: to lower the “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins), increase the “good” cholesterol (high-density lipoproteins); to make more room your diet for healthier foods, and to help you control your weight. Excess body weight, IS a risk factor for breast cancer, because the extra fat increases the production of estrogen outside the ovaries and adds to the overall level of estrogen in the body. If you are already overweight, or have a tendency to gain weight easily, avoiding high-fat foods is a good idea.
8. A monthly breast self-exam is the best way to diagnose breast cancer.
No. Digital mammography or high quality film-screen mammography is the most reliable way to find breast cancer as early as possible, when it is most curable. By the time a breast cancer can be felt, it is usually bigger than the average size of a cancer first found on mammography. Breast examination by you or your healthcare provider is still very important. About 25% of breast cancers are found only on breast examination (not on the mammogram), about 35% are found on mammography alone, and 40% are found by both physical exam and mammography. Keep both bases covered.
9. I’m at high risk for breast cancer and there’s nothing I can do about it.
No. There are several effective ways to reduce-but not eliminate-the risk of breast cancer in women at high risk. Options include lifestyle changes (minimize alcohol consumption, stop smoking, exercise regularly), medication (tamoxifen, also called Nolvadex); and in cases of very high risk, surgery may be offered (prophylactic mastectomies, and for some women, prophylactic ovary removal). Be sure that you have consulted with a physician or genetic counselor before you make assumptions about your level of risk.
10. A breast cancer diagnosis is an automatic death sentence.
No. Fully 80% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no signs of metastases (no cancer has spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes) when first diagnosed. Furthermore, 80% of these women live at least five years, most longer, and many live much longer. Even women with signs of cancer metastases can live a long time. Plus promising treatment breakthroughs are becoming available each day.
Visit Breast Cancer: Healing the Whole Woman to read all of our breast cancer content.
Marisa Weiss M.D., president and founder of breastcancer.org, is a breast radiation oncologist in Philadelphia and the co- author, with her daughter Isabel Friedman, of Taking Care of Your “Girls”: A Breast Health Guide for Girls, Teens, and In-Betweens (Three Rivers Press). For more on understanding your diagnosis, go to breastcancer.org