HomeOpinion & AnalysisBreast cancer myths debunked

Breast cancer myths debunked

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By Michelle Madzudzo

WITH so many Zimbabweans affected by cancer, there is a lot of information and, unfortunately, misinformation available. It has become difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, as much of the inaccurate information looks and sounds perfectly plausible. Breast cancer is one of the better known and talked about cancers, but still there are so many misconceptions and myths surrounding it. Therefore, this article intends to set the record straight on myths we regularly encounter, some of which may surprise you.

Myth: Breast  cancer is largely genetic, if it does not run in my family I won’t get it

Fact: This is one of the biggest myths ever, most people diagnosed with breast cancer have no known family history of cancer. Many people think of breast cancer as an inherited disease, but only 5% to 10% of it is believed to be hereditary, the rest is due to changes that occur throughout a person’s lifetime as a result of aging and exposure to environmental factors such as tobacco smoke, radiation, smoking, hormonal factors and diet, among others.

Myth: Young women don’t get breast cancer 

Fact: It is true that your risk of developing breast cancer increases with age, but you can get breast cancer at any age. Although it is less common in young women, it can happen to them in  their 20s and 30s. Women of all ages need to pay attention to their breasts, perform self examination, report any unusual change to doctors.

Myth: Men can’t get breast cancer

Fact: Even though 99% of cases appear in women, breast cancer can also affect man since they also have breast tissue. According to statistics, one in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime, one in 883 men will also develop breast cancer. Although cases are fewer in man, breast cancer is a reality to some of them.

Myth: Wearing a wired bra can cause breast  cancer

Fact: From time-to-time media coverage and the internet have fuelled myths that wearing a wired bra causes breast cancer. The theory behind this is that a wired bra  restricts flow of lymph out of the breast, causing toxic substances to build up in tissue resulting in breast cancer. There is no scientific evidence to support this claim and your use of a wired bra will not contribute to the risk of breast cancer.

Myth: Carrying your cellphone  in the bra puts you at risk of breast cancer

Fact: To date there is no conclusive evidence to support the claim, but the safety of cellphones is being studied. Cellphones emit a type of low frequency energy that does not damage cells, but only results in tissue heating. However, research is underway. So, in the meantime it is better to be safe than sorry. Why risk good health by using our smartphones in not so smart ways. In conclusion, in the spirit of breast cancer month, to all the women out there, although there is no proven breast cancer link, you may need to avoid putting your cellphone in the bra or close to chest until conclusive research is available. Carry your phone in your purse and never fall asleep with it on your body. Whether wearing cellphones really causes breast cancer or not , limiting alcohol, not smoking followed by maintaining a healthy diet and keeping active are the most effective ways to reduce breast cancer risk.

Myth: Using underarm antiperspirants causes breast cancer

Fact: There has been persistent rumour that underarm anti-perspirants especially those containing aluminium can cause breast cancer. The theory behind this states that chemicals absorbed into the lymph nodes find their way to the breast cells and increase cancer risk. Another claim is that antiperspirants by stopping sweating prevent release of toxic substances which can build up and cause cancer. The reality is that breast cancer may invade surrounding breast tissue and enter lymphatic vessels and  breast cancer typically arises in breast tissue, not lymph ducts. To date, there is no conclusive evidence to support this claim.

Myth: I can get breast cancer from the radiation in mammograms

Fact: Mammography, an X-ray of the breast is the most important  screening tool for breast cancer.  Since mammography involves the use of radiation, there are claims that it can cause breast cancer. Studies have shown that the small amount from routine mammography is very insignificant and is extremely unlikely to cause breast cancer given the low doses.

The  average woman is far more likely to have saved her life by getting a mammography for the benefit of the examination outweigh the far-fetched associated risks.

Myth: The most sure sign of breast cancer is a lump

Fact: Roughly 80% of lumps in women’s breasts are caused by benign or non-cancerous changes, cysts and other conditions that occur in the breast.

Please note that a lump is not the only way breast cancer presents itself. It can manifest itself in so many ways as below:

  • Fluid discharge from the nipple
  • A change in appearance of the nipple
  • An inverted nipple
  • A change in the shape or appearance of the breast, such as swelling or skin dimpling
  • Change in size of the breast
  • Pain in the breast
  • Redness or scarring of skin on breast or nipple
  • Lumps in the armpit (axilla)

Myth : Herbs cure breast cancer

Fact: To use a metaphor ”just because cars sometimes crash doesn’t mean that flying carpets are a viable flying option”. Conventional medicines don’t automatically prove that alternative cures work. Some studies suggest that alternative or complementary therapies including some herbs may help patients cope with the side effects of cancer treatment, but no herbal products have been shown to be effective for treating breast cancer.

We only hear about the success stories — what about people who have tried it and have not survived? The dead can’t speak. In many cases, it’s impossible to tell whether patients have been cured or not. We know nothing about their diagnosis, stage or outlook or if they had breast cancer in the first place.

In fact, some herbal products may be harmful when taken during chemotherapy and radiotherapy because they may interfere with how these treatments work. Breast cancer patients should talk to their doctor about any alternative and complementary medicine products they may be using.

Myth: Breast cancer radiotherapy treatment kills more than it cures

Fact: Let’s be clear, breast cancer treatment whether surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy is no walk in the park. The side effects can be tough, but these treatments do work. Due to advances in radiotherapy and chemotherapy, breast cancer patients are now living longer.

These treatments are most effective when the patient is treated early. Unfortunately in Zimbabwe, 80% of the patients present late when the disease is advanced and the chances of cure are very low.

Radiotherapy  is very frequently given late in the course of cancer to palliate symptoms, often after the cancer has turned resistant to chemotherapy and has spread widely or when the patient is too frail to receive any other therapy. The terminal cancer will take its natural course no matter what is done. In such cases, relatives may form a misunderstanding that radiotherapy given soon before death caused the tumour to progress and the patient to die, this is not true.

Early detection and treatment saves lives. All women are encouraged to do the monthly breast self examination and to go for breast cancer screening.

Wrong ideas about breast cancer can lead to needless worry and even hinder good prevention and treatment decisions.

Talk Cancer Zim is here to disseminate timely, useful, precise and relevant breast cancer information.

Let’s think pink throughout October and beyond. The fight against breast cancer should be kept alive and continue throughout the year.

  • Michelle Madzudzo is Talk Cancer Zim founder and radiation therapist

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