Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer for women in the UK. with around 55,000 women diagnosed every year. While it is one of the most well-known and discussed forms of cancer, there are still a lot of myths, misconceptions and half-truths out there. When dealing with something as serious as breast cancer, it’s important to separate the myths from the facts and the science from the superstition.
Whether you or someone you care about has recently received a breast cancer diagnosis or you simply want to know more about it, the more informed you are the better. Here, we’ll dismantle some unfortunately persistent breast cancer myths so you can make better-informed decisions, reduce your risk as much as possible, and take decisive action if symptoms of breast cancer develop.
Fact: This is a very unfortunate misconception that leads many younger people not to realise that they have breast cancer until it has been allowed to advance. Although being middle-aged or older does increase a person’s risk of breast cancer, around 1 in every 25 invasive breast cancer cases occurs in women under 40 years of age. Even if you are in your 20s or 30s, you should still self-examine regularly (once a month on the same day is recommended). If you notice any changes, report them to your doctor as soon as possible. The NHS has an excellent guide on how to self-check your breasts.
Fact: Being overweight, drinking in excess, smoking tobacco and eating a diet of processed foods have all been linked to an increased risk of a range of cancers, including breast cancer. On the other hand, a diet that is rich in whole foods, especially fresh vegetables and fruit is typically associated with reduced cancer risk. This is because these plant foods are rich in phytochemicals, which can prevent tumour growth and decrease the production of cancer-related hormones.
That said, even if you have a great diet, exercise regularly and are a non-smoking teetotaller, this does not necessarily mean that you are 100% free of the risk of breast cancer. The unfortunate truth is that while these are all excellent ways to mitigate risk, there are some risk factors that are simply outside of your control.
Fact: Is breast cancer hereditary? It’s something that we’re often asked by patients who have a family history of breast cancer. While this is a risk factor, it does not necessarily mean that those with a family history of breast cancer are destined to get it at some point in their lives.
Nor, by that same token, can anyone assume that they are not at risk of breast cancer if there is no family history of it. The biggest breast cancer risk factors are being female and getting older. As such, whether they have a family history of it or not, every woman should self-check regularly.
Fact: When self-checking your breasts, you should be on the lookout for bumps, swelling and bumps in the breasts and armpits, as well as any general changes to the shape and outline of the breast.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that breast cancer does not always necessarily result in a tangible breast lump. Sometimes, symptoms of breast cancer cannot be seen or felt when self-checking. This is why it’s so important to get a mammogram every few years.
Fact: For a long time, a rumour has persisted that wearing a tight bra, particularly an underwired bra, can increase your risk of breast cancer. It’s easy to understand the logic behind this. The theory is that wearing a restrictive bra may restrict the flow of lymphatic fluid out of the breast, allowing toxic substances to build up in the tissue.
In the internet age, it’s easy for popular theories to be widely shared to the extent that they become accepted as fact. However, there is no evidence linking tight bras, or wearing a bra to bed, with breast cancer. Likewise, the popular myth that using antiperspirant deodorants can increase your risk of breast cancer carries very little weight.
Fact: Early-stage cancer is where the cancer has not spread beyond the breast tissue and lymph nodes. This is the point at which breast cancer is at its most treatable. However, while this early-stage breast cancer is unlikely to return, there is always a risk of it recurring.
Another persistent myth is that if breast cancer does not return after 5 years, it will not return at all. Although patients are most at risk 2-5 years after successful treatment, breast cancer can still recur decades later. As well as returning to the breast tissue, it can also recur in the lungs, bones and other tissues close to where the original cancer was discovered.
Fact: While breast cancer is certainly less common in men, it can still affect male breast tissue. While this is more common in men over 60, it can also affect younger men. According to BreastCancerNow.org, approximately 370 men are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK.
If you are male and notice a lump in your breast tissue, discharge from the nipples, or have a longstanding family history of breast cancer in men and/or women, book an appointment with your GP as soon as possible to get checked.
Many men understand the importance of checking for signs of testicular cancer regularly, but few ever check their breast tissue. Try and incorporate this into your self-care regimen, especially as you get older.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. So what better time to have a professional check-up? Book yourself in today for a screening mammogram with a free GP consultation.
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