Busted: Three common breast cancer myths

Published: October 30, 2014 By: Tiffany Wilson
Masood, center, joins other UF College of Medicine - Jacksonville and UF Health Jacksonville staff in wearing pink in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. View Larger Image

You’ve seen the pink ribbons, pink socks and pink hairdos that have become a hallmark of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but do you know the real facts about breast cancer?

Shahla Masood, MD, professor and chair of pathology at University of Florida College of Medicine – Jacksonville and medical director of the UF Health Breast Center – Jacksonville, dispelled some common myths in a seminar she offered to employees of the college and UF Health Jacksonville.

Myth # 1: Breast cancer is primarily passed through family.

The Truth: Only 5-10 percent of breast cancers are caused by genetic mutations. The majority of breast cancers are not associated with any known risk factors. However, many factors may accelerate the process of getting breast cancer in patients who are predisposed. Factors that could increase risk for breast cancer include:

  • A history of long-term exposure to estrogen or progesterone
  • Atypical hyperplasia (diagnosed in breast biopsy samples)
  • A family history of early-onset breast and ovarian cancer
  • A family history of male breast cancer in the family
  • Ashkenazi Jewish families
  • High-risk behaviors, including smoking, excessive drinking, a diet high in fat, lack of mobility or exercise, and stress. These behaviors are factors that may be associated with increased incidence of many diseases, including cancer.  

“You’ll notice, these risk factors present themselves for all the diseases we can think of,” Masood said. “As women, we are the gatekeepers of our families. We all get busy, but it is our responsibility to take care of ourselves. That means less stress, a balanced diet and a balanced weight.”

Myth #2: A lump is the first sign of breast cancer.

The Truth: A lump is actually a later sign that may be found once breast cancer has progressed. Mammography often finds cancer long before a detectable lump forms. Mammograms are recommended for all women over age 40. If you have a close family relative who had breast cancer, you should begin mammograms 10 years before you reach the age at which your relative was diagnosed.

“Some masses will still be missed with mammograms, and some masses that are found will not be cancerous, but getting a mammogram reduces mortality by almost 30 percent,” Masood said. 

Nevertheless, searching for lumps is highly recommended. If a lump is found, have a physician evaluate it, but don’t panic: the majority of breast lumps are not cancerous. In addition to searching for lumps during breast self-exams, women need to be aware of any changes in their breasts, such as a nipple discharge, any masses, skin changes or asymmetrical breasts.

Myth #3: A mastectomy is the most reliable way to eliminate breast cancer.

The Truth: A mastectomy is not always necessary. In fact, in the majority of cases, the removal (excision) of cancerous tissue followed by radiation therapy (known as conservative therapy) will have the same outcome as a mastectomy.

“The rate of bilateral mastectomies (removal of both breasts) are increasing because of fear the patients have of breast cancer. You should first determine what kind of breast cancer you have and plan a personalized therapy. All breast cancers are not created equal,” Masood said.

However, she praised actress Angelina Jolie’s decision to have both breasts removed because Jolie has BRCA1, a gene that sharply increases a woman’s risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.  She also praised Jolie’s choice to share her decision with the public and help spread awareness about the gene, but Masood stressed that the story must be told in the right way, so women realize Jolie’s decision came in response to a strong family history and presence of breast cancer genes.

“Breast cancer is not a fatal disease in the majority of cases,” Masood said. “The panic that is associated with it has to go away.”

Use breast health tools

Masood said breast cancer has become a “major global health issue,” but there are simple tools women can use to monitor their breast health.

  • Know your family history
  • Monitor your breasts for changes
  • Communicate your family history, concerns and changes to your doctor
  • Make and keep recommended doctor appointments, such as mammograms and yearly exams

For more information, visit the UF Health Breast Center website at ufhealthjax.org/breast.

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