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8 Myths — and the Truth — About Breast Cancer

Despite awareness campaigns and countless news articles, misconceptions abound about risks, prevention, detection and treatment

pink ribbon being cut by scissors (Adam Voorhes)

The pink ribbon has been a recognized symbol of breast cancer support and awareness since the early 1990s. — Adam Voorhes

Breast cancer is ubiquitous — and scary. The odds of a woman in the United States developing breast cancer in her lifetime are 1 in 8, according to the American Cancer Society.

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But how much do you really know about the disease's risk factors, treatments, and prevention and detection methods? Here, we debunk eight common myths.

Myth 1: If you're at risk, there's not much you can do but watch for signs

Reality: There are some breast cancer risk factors that you have no control over, like your age and family history. But there are lifestyle habits you can embrace that can significantly reduce your odds, including getting more sleep, eating well, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight. "Breast cancer risk is linked to increased levels of estrogen, and fat tissue produces excess amounts of it," says Joseph A. Sparano, M.D., associate chairman at the Department of Oncology at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. (For more about reducing risk factors, see "Fight Back Against Breast Cancer.")

Myth 2: Most breast lumps are cancerous

Reality: "Although it's important for you to see a doctor as soon as possible if you find something unusual in one of your breasts, most breast lumps are not cancerous," says Debbie Saslow, director of breast and gynecologic cancer at the American Cancer Society. And it doesn't mean you have the disease if your doctor orders a biopsy, which is a procedure that typically involves inserting a thin, hollow needle connected to a syringe into a suspicious lump and removing fluid and tissue for further examination. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, most biopsy results are benign. Still, the only way to know for sure is to remove and test tissue from the suspicious area.

Myth 3: Lumps are the only sign of breast cancer

Reality: Skin irritation or dimpling, nipple pain or having a nipple turn inward, swelling in the armpit, or any change in the size, contour, texture or temperature of the breast can also be a warning sign. A reddish, pitted surface like the skin of an orange could be a symptom of advanced breast cancer. Unusual discharge from the nipple that may be clear, bloody or another color is usually caused by benign conditions but could also be due to cancer.

Myth 4: Needle biopsies can disturb cancer cells and spread them to other parts of the body

Reality: Not true. Despite previous concerns, a 2004 analysis of more than 2,500 breast cancer patients from the Austrian Sentinel Node Biopsy Study Group in Vienna found no tumor cell spreading after a biopsy.

Next page: Does wearing deodorant increase your risk of breast cancer? »

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