5 Myths About Breast Cancer
With breast cancer being the most common cancer amongst women, there are also many myths flying around. We debunk five of them for you on the occasion of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
MYTH 1: Breast cancer always causes a lump you can feel.
A common misconception is that breast cancer always causes a lump that can be felt during a self-exam. They might use this as a reason to skip mammograms, thinking they will be able to feel any change that will indicate a problem. A mammogram can find a cancerous lump before it can be felt. While breast cancer does not always cause an obvious lump, it is possible that by the time it does, the cancer might have already spread beyond the breast into the lymph nodes. Although regular self-exams are recommended, they are not a substitute for regular mammograms.
MYTH 2: Annual mammograms will guarantee the early detection of breast cancer.
Standard mammograms miss an estimated 20 percent of breast cancers at the time of screening. Though x-ray mammography is a widely recognized early screening tool, false negatives can occur, especially in women with dense breast tissue, and in some cases, fast-growing cancer can develop between screenings. Especially for those at higher risk, additional screening such as contrast-enhanced mammography or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be an important option.
MYTH 3: Small breasts equal a smaller risk of breast cancer.
Most breast cancers form outside of the fatty tissues of a woman’s breasts. Therefore, breast density is more important than breast size when it comes to risk and screening. In fact, this is the only physical breast characteristic proven to increase a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer. Women with more than 75 percent dense breast tissue face a four-to-six times greater risk. Because it’s difficult to detect tumors in dense breast tissue with standard x-ray mammography, as the tumors appear white just as the tissue itself, cancer is more often missed or found later in advanced stages in these women. Contrast-enhanced mammography or MRI may reveal additional breast cancers as these methods depict the blood vessels that are present in growing tumors.
MYTH 4: You can’t change your odds of getting breast cancer.
Many of the most important risk factors for breast cancer are beyond our control, such as gender, age, genetics, and personal and family medical history. However, there are several steps that women can take to lower their risk, such as maintaining a healthy diet and weight. More fat tissue leads to higher estrogen levels, which can increase breast cancer risk. Evidence is growing that regular physical activity reduces breast cancer risk, especially in women past menopause. The American Cancer Society recommends that adults get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week (or a combination of these). Also, drinking alcohol is clearly linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.
MYTH 5: All breast cancer is treated pretty much the same way.
Treatment plans vary widely depending on the characteristics of the tumor, the stage of the cancer as well as patient preferences. Some breast cancer cells have receptors on their surface making it sensitive to hormones. Around 70% of all women with breast cancer have Estrogen receptor positive (ER+) disease. Treatment with anti-hormonals can block the growth of cancer cells. However, some cancers get resistant to this treatment over time. Thus, the need for additional treatment options beyond established anti-hormonal treatment approaches remains high.
In about 1 of every 5 breast cancers, the cancer cells have extra copies of the gene that makes the HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) protein. This protein promotes the growth of cancer cells. Despite treatment advances, therapeutic options are needed for patients with HER2 overexpression in breast cancer who develop resistance to the standard HER2-targeted therapies. There is also urgent need for options providing clinical benefit for tumors expressing low levels of HER2 where the currently approved HER2 targeted agents have not demonstrated efficacy.
Understanding the molecular makeup of a patient’s specific breast cancer may help doctors to choose the most effective treatment for their patients. Whenever breast cancer recurs or spreads, the cancer cells should be retested, as the molecular status can change from the original diagnosis.
Facts About Breast Cancer
According to the World Health Organization, breast cancer impacts 2.1 million patients each year, making it the most common type of cancer among women globally. Despite medical advances, breast cancer causes the greatest number of cancer-related deaths among women, underscoring the importance of early diagnosis and state-of-the-art treatment to save patients’ lives. More than 90% of women diagnosed at the earliest stage survive their disease for at least five years compared to around 15% for women diagnosed with the most advanced stage of disease, according to Cancer Research UK. Contrast-enhanced x-ray mammography and breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) may reveal breast cancers which are missed by standard mammography and other options, especially in women with high breast density.