Despite the recent advances made in the detection and the treatment of breast cancer, much still remains to be known. These areas of darkness about the breast cancer give rise to many myths about the cause and the cure of the disease.
A malignant tumor developing from the breast tissue is known as “breast cancer.” It may develop from the cells of the milk producing lobules, or the cells lining the ducts which allow the passage of the milk from the lobules to the nipple. It may also arise, though less frequently, from the fatty and fibrous tissue of the breast called as the stromal tissue. With the passage of time, the cancer cells may invade the adjoining healthy tissue and may even reach up to the lymph nodes present in the arm pits. Once there, they can spread to other distant parts of the body via the lymphatic channel. The staging of the breast cancer is done depending on how far it has spread from the site of its origin.
Believing in these myths leads to delay in detection and late treatment, which may prove hazardous, taking into consideration the quick spread of the disease. Some of the common misunderstandings regarding breast cancer are:
1. Only women with a positive family history are at a risk of developing breast cancer.Even though the risk of developing breast cancer doubles if a first degree relative i.e., a parent, sibling or child has suffered from the disease, there are more than 70 % cases where no risk factor could be identified.
2. Breast cancer is a genetic disease.Mutated BRAC 1, BRAC 2 and P 53 genes on chromosome 17 have been held responsible for more than 90 % of the inherited cancer cases. But inherited cancer forms less than 5 % of the total breast cancer cases. There are other risk factors which may lead to breast cancer like age, high fat diet, menstruation beginning at a very early age or continuing past 50 years of age, late first child, previous benign breast conditions, etc. Moreover in more than 70 % cases, no risk factor can be identified.
3. Breast cancer always develops from a lump.A lump in the breast may be an early indicator of cancer but it is certainly not the only sign. Other changes like nipple retraction, discoloration or change in the skin texture of the breast tissue or the nipple, and any abnormal fluid secretion from the nipple may also indicate development of breast cancer. Inflammatory breast cancer is a rare type of breast cancer where there is no palpable lump. Sometimes the cancerous cells may metastasize to the lymph nodes in the armpit early in the course of the disease. In such a scenario, the lump in the breast is not felt. Therefore, instead of relying completely on a palpable lump, one should watch out for other signs as well like any change in the shape or size of the breast, their symmetry, any dimpling or scaling of the breast tissue, nipple retraction or any abnormal discharge from the nipple, tenderness in the nipple or breast tissue, etc.
4. Fibrocystic disease of the breast increases the chances of breast cancer.Fibrocystic disease of the breast is an absolutely benign condition with no connection to breast cancer, whatsoever at all. The only problem it may pose is difficulty in picking up breast cancer during mammography as the dense fibrocystic tissue may mask the cancerous tissue. Hence, it is important to follow up a mammogram with an ultrasound in such patients to remove any trace of doubt.
5. Mammography itself may lead to development of breast cancer.The amount of radiation used during mammography is very small and it is considered to be a safe procedure. The Mammography Quality Standards Act created by the American College of Radiology ensures that strict guidelines for x-ray safety are complied with during the procedure and only about 0.1 to 0.2 rad dose is used per x-ray. It is the lowest dose of radiation possible but it creates detailed images of the breast tissue making it an extremely useful tool in the early diagnosis of breast cancer. Care should be taken to undergo a mammography at a center using an ACR accredited facility.
6. Discharge from nipple is an indicator of breast cancer.Not all discharges from the nipple are because of an underlying cancerous condition. Milky, yellow, green or clear discharges are usually not indicative of cancer. A bloody or watery discharge from the nipple may be due to cancer in about 10 % of cases. In the remaining 90 %, it may be because of other causes like breast papilloma, a benign condition. If the discharge is watery or bloody, persistent, confined to one breast and appears without applying any pressure, then a thorough examination by a qualified practitioner is warranted.
7. Use of antiperspirants may lead to breast cancer.Sweat is comprised of water, sodium, potassium and magnesium only. It does not contain any toxins. So the hypothesis that antiperspirants block the purging of toxins from the armpits resulting in their accumulation and subsequent development of breast cancer is baseless. The National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have not found any evidence against the use of antiperspirants.
8. Breast cancer can be caused by an injury to the breast.This is again a totally baseless myth. Injury to the breast tissue may cause fat necrosis, a non cancerous breast condition. It may give a false reading of cancer on mammography but usually subsides within a month. A firm scar tissue may be formed as a result of repair of the damaged tissue which may be mistaken for a lump. But there is certainly no evidence of development of cancer because of any injury.
9. A woman who has suffered from breast cancer should avoid pregnancy.The various changes in the hormonal and metabolic environment of the body during pregnancy do not pose any threat of relapse of breast cancer. There is no change in the long term prognosis of the cancer patient by the time duration between the cancer treatment and the pregnancy.
10. Breast cancer may be caused by oral contraceptive pills.Most of the oral contraceptive pills in use these days contain less than 50 micrograms of estrogen, a dose so low that it does not pose any risk of breast cancer even after a use of more than 10 years. However, women with a family history of breast cancer or those with a high risk should consult their physician before starting hormonal contraceptive pills.
Always remember that the earlier the breast cancer is diagnosed, the higher are the chances of successful treatment and more are the chances of beating the cancer. So in case of any doubt, it is always better to consult the doctor than be misguided by the numerous myths surrounding breast cancer