Breast Cancer: Separating Myths From Facts

11/01/2015 8:31 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
Jennie Ivins/Flickr
This pincushion is shaped like a breast cancer awareness pink ribbon! It is made of pretty pink felt and is 5-1/2" tall and 4" wide. Sitting on top are three decorative, removable polymer clay pink ribbon pins. This piece is completely hand sewn, no machines or glue used.

Internet, Facebook, Twitter: Welcome to the age of information overload. Along with useful information, the Internet is also the source of misinformation and myths. Being a practicing oncologist, I am frequently asked about causes of breast cancer. While there are a number of legitimate risk factors for cancer, the web is overrun with unsubstantiated claims backed by minimal or poor quality research. Here are a few myths I have encountered about breast cancer.

1) Antiperspirants cause cancer: A friend on Facebook recently forwarded this to me. The post suggested that antiperspirant use can increase the risk of breast cancer. No studies have shown a link between the two and this theory has been roundly debunked. There was also a suggestion that men get less cancer as their armpit hair absorb the antiperspirant! The risk of breast cancer is lower in men than women because: 1) Men have minimal breast tissue 2) A number of breast cancers are dependent on a hormone called oestrogen that is predominantly present in women. So, don't sweat it (pun intended), there is no good data to back this claim up.

2) Underwire bras increase the risk of breast cancer: The basis for this claim is that an underwire bra compresses the lymph system of the breast and leads toxins to accumulate, leading to cancer. No scientific data supports this claim and this is more fiction than fact.

3) Exposing a cancer to oxygen at the time of surgery causes cancer to spread: Cancer cells undergo changes called 'mutations' that can give it a signal to spread. This comes from changes inside a cancer cell and has nothing to do with taking tumours out at surgery. Cancer is curable if caught early and is surgically removed (except some cancers of the blood and lymph system that do better with chemotherapy and/or radiation). Sometimes, though it is only at the time of surgery that it is apparent to the doctor that the tumour has spread more than previously believed.

4) Trauma to the breast can cause cancer: This is an old concept from a century back when doctors believed that trauma to the breast can cause cancer. The reality is that trauma to the breast frequently results in a visit to the doctor and a lump is discovered that was already there. The important take away point is that the injury did not cause the cancer, it was just discovered as that area was closely looked at by a physician.

5) Caffeine Intake: Multiple studies have looked into this and there does not seem to be any correlation between caffeine intake and increased risk for breast cancer.

While not using antiperspirant deodorant may not have any affect on breast cancer risk, the following lifestyle changes can decrease your risk of breast cancer:

1) Exercise: Regular exercise seems to decrease the risk of breast cancer. In studies, women who were physically active had a risk reduction of 25 per cent compared to women who were not very active.

2) Obesity: Being overweight is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer in women who are post-menopausal.

So, instead of worrying about random risks, eating healthy and exercising regularly can make a world of difference. Truly, prevention is better than cure!

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