Fact: Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Australian women with an estimated 15,600 women being diagnosed with the disease this year.

Over the course of their life, the fact is Australian women have a 1 in 8 risk of developing breast cancer. Currently, around seven women in Australia die every day from breast cancer.

Yet despite how common the disease, there are still many myths surrounding breast cancer. Some of these myths are based on old information, some based on claims not supported by research and some are ‘old wives tales’, for want of a better phrase.

Because breast cancer is a frightening disease for many women, it can be difficult to know what to believe and what to ignore, particularly when there is much conflicting information and advice published on the internet.

So, we have gone straight to Australia’s peak breast cancer associations — Breast Cancer Network of Australia (BCNA), the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) and Cancer Council Australia — to bring you the fact and most up-to-date, accurate information about one of the biggest health concerns for women in this country.

Myths about breast cancer

Breast cancer is a woman’s disease

FALSE: Breast cancer is more common in women. However, men can also develop the disease. Fortunately, male breast cancer accounts for less than 1 per cent of all cancers in men — that’s around 145 men diagnosed every year.

Only older women get breast cancer

FALSE: The average age of first diagnosis of breast cancer in women is 60 years, and 75 per cent of new breast cancers develop in women over the age of 50. However, young women can also develop breast cancer. Latest figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report show that of women under the age of 50 diagnosed with breast cancer:

  • 18 per cent are aged 40 to 49
  • 2 per cent are aged30 to 39
  • < 1 per cent are aged21 to 29
  • < 1 per cent are aged under 20.

You can prevent breast cancer

FALSE: Unfortunately, there is no known prevention for breast cancer. While we don’t fully understand the causes of breast cancer, research has shown that some things can increase your chances of developing the disease. These are called risk factors.

Risk factors can be classified as non-modifiable (you can’t change these) and modifiable (the ones you can change). Unfortunately, the biggest risk factors for breast cancer are non-modifiable.

Breast cancer risk factors you CANNOT change include:

  • Being a woman — This is in fact the single biggest risk factor for breast cancer.
  • Getting older — As with many other diseases, your risk increases as you get older.
  • A strong family history of breast cancer — This is only the case for a small number of cases. Around 90 to 95 per cent of all breast cancers have nothing to do with family history.
  • Genetics — Inheriting a faulty gene can increase your risk. However, this accounts for only 5 to 10 per cent of breast cancer.

The good news is there are some risk factors YOU CAN change. These include:

  • Weight — Overweight and obese women have a higher risk, particularly if weight gain occurs after menopause.
  • Smoking — Smoking is a risk factor for many cancers, including breast cancer.
  • Activity levels — Research shows regular exercise reduces your risk.
  • Alcohol intake — Research shows a strong link between alcohol and an increased risk of breast cancer.
  • Diet — Following a healthy diet including at least five serves of veggies and two fruits a day may help reduce your risk
  • Breastfeeding — There is a link between breastfeeding and reduced risk — the longer you breastfeed, the lower the risk of breast cancer.

It’s important to remember that risk factors affect different people in different ways. Just because you have some of them, does not mean you will develop breast cancer.

I’ve heard wearing underwire bras and using deodorant causes breast cancer

FALSE: There are many untrue statements about breast cancer and these are two of them. There is absolutely no proof that wearing an underwire or tight-fitting bra causes breast cancer.

Internet rumours have suggested that chemicals used in deodorants cause a build-up of toxins in the lymph glands under the arms, leading to breast cancer. To date, research studies have failed to provide conclusive evidence to support this theory.

Other false claims regarding the cause of breast cancer include:

  • A bump or blow to the breast causes breast cancer — Research has shown this is not true, although it can draw attention to a lump that already existed in the breast.
  • Abortion or miscarriage leads to breast cancer — There is absolutely no link between termination of a pregnancy and breast cancer

A strong family history of breast cancer means I will get it too

FALSE: Women with a strong family history of breast cancer have a higher risk of developing the disease compared with the wider population. A strong family history means having at least two close blood relatives (e.g. mother, sister, daughter, cousin or aunt) on the same side of the family affected by breast cancer, usually before they are 50 years of age. Strong family history does not mean you are certain to develop breast cancer. However, if there is a family history you should speak to your doctor about screening options.

A lump is the only sign of breast cancer

FALSE: There are many symptoms of breast cancer that you need to be aware of. They include:

  • a new lump in your breast or armpit
  • thickening or swelling of part of your breast
  • irritation or dimpling of breast tissue
  • redness or flaky skin in the nipple area
  • nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
  • change in the shape or size of your breast
  • pain in any area of your breast.

Fortunately, most breast changes are not due to cancer. But if you notice anything unusual, get it checked out immediately.

Having regular mammograms will prevent breast cancer

FALSE: Mammograms are screening tools only. However, it is important to have regular mammograms as they can detect breast cancer before any signs or symptoms are present. Early detection of breast cancer means treatment is more likely to be successful.

In Australia, two-yearly mammograms are recommended for women aged 50-74 years, although it is also available for women aged over 40. Studies have shown mammograms are less effective in women under 40 years of age.

The chances of surviving breast cancer are slim

FALSE: Research shows that the overall five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with breast cancer is 89 per cent. Of course, many women live long and healthy lives after their diagnosis and successful treatment. Treatment and prognosis depend on multiple factors including the type and stage of cancer, as well as the woman’s age and general health at the time.

In Australia, if the cancer is limited to the breast, 96 per cent of patients will survive at least five years after diagnosis. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate is 80 per cent.

Unfortunately, breast cancer is a reality for many Australians. However, it is NOT a death sentence.

Change the risk factors that you can change, be aware of your breasts, have regular mammograms (if you are over 40), and report any breast changes, no matter how small, to your doctor — because the key to successful treatment and survival is early detection.

Most importantly however, we need to stand together and support those who have been touched by breast cancer, by donating, supporting fundraising campaigns, and being more aware of this disease.

Together, we can make a difference to the toll breast cancer takes on Australians.

Note: BCNA is the peak national organisation for Australians affected by breast cancer.

NBCF is the leading community-funded organisation in Australia, raising money for research into the prevention and cure of breast cancer.

Cancer Council Australia is Australia’s peak national non-government cancer control organisation.

References and further information:

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Breast Cancer http://www.aihw.gov.au/cancer/breast/

Breast Cancer Network Australia www.bcna.org.au

National Breast Cancer Foundation www.nbcf.org.au

Cancer Council Australia www.cancer.org.au

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