Breast cancer: what you’ve always wanted to know + misconceptions to avoid

Breast cancer has been a hot topic in our household since I recently tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation responsible for hereditary breast cancer in our family. And as I started having more and more conversations around breast cancer, I realised just how many breast cancer misconceptions many of us had been duped by somewhere along the line. Well, it is no wonder seeing as we live in an era of fake news is it really?

But that stops here because this Breast Cancer Awareness month, the team at 40 Now What decided that it’s time to set the record straight in our two part series on breast cancer.

In part one we’ll be taking a sledgehammer to all those breast cancer misconceptions with insights from Daniel Leff, Consultant in Oncoplastic Breast Surgery at King Edward VII’s Hospital and Dr Petra Simic, Medical Director at Bupa UK Insurance. In part two, we’ll be getting underneath the hood so to speak with a detailed guide on how to check your breasts and everything you need to know in order to become your boobs’ best friend and safeguarder with Dr Deborah Lee of the Dr Fox Online Pharmacy.

The things you wanted to know about breast cancer but never dared ask

Here, Mr Daniel Leff, Consultant in Oncoplastic Breast Surgery at King Edward VII’s Hospital in London takes us through all the things you always wanted to know about breast cancer but were too scared to ask.

He says: “In my practice I see a lot of patients who have been holding off from asking questions because they’re embarrassed or are worried about what I’ll think.

“But I always encourage my patients to come forward with whatever’s on their mind, rather than holding the question in or trying to search the internet for the answer. There’s plenty of misinformation out there and often you’ll come across myths that might make you feel worse, or worry unnecessarily, so it’s always best to speak to a medical professional if you have any concerns.”

If a family member has had breast cancer, will I get it too?

There are lots of different risk factors for breast cancer. Some of these factors are genetic and some are environmental, so often it’s hard to say exactly why someone has developed a cancer – it could be due to multiple factors.

There are some genetic factors that we do know about – for example some families carry the BRCA 1 or 2 genes which raise the risk of some cancers, including breast and ovarian cancer in women and male breast cancer and prostate cancer in men.

If you have potential breast cancer symptoms and there is a history of breast, ovarian, prostate or pancreatic cancer in your family, it’s definitely worth seeking medical advice.

I’ve heard that being on the contraceptive pill (or taking HRT) could give you breast cancer?

There is some scientific research showing that people who take the contraceptive pill have a slightly higher chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer than people who have never taken it. But there are lots of other factors involved, including your family history as well as lifestyle factors such as the amount of alcohol you drink, being overweight, or previously having had radiation therapy.

There are some studies that show a link between taking HRT and a slightly increased risk of developing breast cancer in post-menopausal women – but only if you have taken it for longer than a year. And this risk starts to decrease when you stop taking it.

Should people who have had breast augmentation surgery be more worried?

There’s not enough evidence to know whether breast implants are a risk factor in breast cancer.

But a myth that I often hear is that breast implants make it impossible to detect or diagnose breast cancer. Happily, this is completely untrue. When it comes to self-examinations though, there are some different techniques to use. For example, people who have breast implants may want to lie down and feel for the implant, then feel carefully and gently for their ribs underneath to check for lumps.

When standing, it’s important to check for changes to the appearance of the breasts such as swelling, colour changes, rashes or puckering, by looking in the mirror. Try this both with arms raised and arms by the sides to help check for changes.

Are mammograms painful?

Everyone’s perception of pain is different. However, is it is true that some people find having a mammograms uncomfortable, but few find it very painful. We try to make the process as pain-free as possible, and depending on what exactly is needed to help with a diagnosis, we can numb the area too.

What I would say is that techniques are improving all the time, so I’d try not to let preconceptions or other people’s experiences put you off. If there’s something that you’re worried about it’s always important to get checked rather than delaying seeking help, as this could mean less invasive treatment later down the line.

Is it true that mammograms don’t work on younger people?

Breast cancer mainly occurs in people over 50, and it’s rare in people in their 20s and 30s, but that doesn’t mean that younger people shouldn’t be vigilant. The majority of lumps in younger people are totally benign lumps called fibroadenomas – which may feel hard and rubbery – but your GP may refer you to a breast clinic for a scan or biopsy to make sure.

It is true that mammograms are used more to diagnose breast cancer in older patients – because the breast tissue tends to be less dense, making it easier to detect on the mammogram. But we have lots of other very successful techniques to diagnose breast cancer in younger patients, such as ultrasound examinations.

Does nipple discharge indicate cancer?

In most cases, nipple discharge that comes only from pressure or massage from multiple points on the nipple from  both sides of the breast is normal, and  this type of discharge on its own isn’t usually a sign of breast cancer. It might just be something that happens from time to time, especially after giving birth or while breastfeeding, or it might be caused by widening of the ducts  or a benign lump, or as a side effect of a medication. 

But there are some signs that there may be something more serious going on. If fluid leaks out regularly, or spontaneously (without you pressing or squeezing the nipple) or is blood stained, then that can be a warning sign. And if you’re over 50 and / or have other symptoms like a lump, pain, swelling or a non-itchy rash on one breast, you should seek medical help.

It’s important to note that nipple discharge in men isn’t normal, so men who notice fluid coming from their nipples should make an appointment with their GP. And the main point I’d make here is that if something is worrying you, get it checked out.

Is it still possible to get breast cancer treatment during COVID?

If you have symptoms that you’re worried about, it’s important to still seek help. Lots of doctors are now conducting appointments over the phone or over video call, so it might be possible to reassure you without having to go to a GP surgery or hospital in person.

If a physical examination is necessary, medical staff have taken every precaution to keep patients safe. There might be some new rules to follow when you attend your appointment, so make sure you read any letters or correspondence carefully.

7 breast cancer misconceptions to avoid

Misinformation about breast cancer floods the internet and social media. Here, Dr Petra Simic, Medical Director at Bupa UK Insurance sets the record straight by separating fact from fiction.

Myth 1: Finding a lump in your breast is always cancerous

If you notice a lump in your breast, it’s very important to get this checked by your doctor; a lump or change to the feel or appearance of your breasts should never be ignored. However, not all lumps are cancer – but they do need to be checked out.

It can be difficult opening up about your breast health; perhaps you’re worried about wasting your doctor’s time, or you may be nervous or embarrassed to tell them about how you’re feeling.

However, it’s always best to reach out to your doctor for anything unusual. Your healthcare professional will want to hear about any changes you are concerned about.

Myth 2: I should check my breasts on the same day of every month

You should check your breasts whenever it’s convenient for you. It’s important to get to know what is normal for you to help notice any changes. A good time to check your breasts can be when you’re in the shower or bath. You should speak to your GP about any changes to how your breasts feel or look.

Myth 3: If I check my breasts regularly, I don’t need a mammogram

It’s important that you check your breasts regularly and attend your female health appointments. A mammogram is a type of X-ray that can help find breast cancer at an early stage when treatment is most successful.

Anyone registered with a GP as female will be invited for NHS breast screening every three years between the ages of 50 and 71. Cancers found during a mammogram may have been too small to see or be difficult to feel, meaning you may not have noticed a change in appearance or touch.

Myth 4: Wearing a bra can cause cancer

There is no evidence that wearing a bra causes breast cancer. The theory behind this misconception focuses on wearing an underwired bra, and a theory that the wiring restricts the flow of lymph fluid out of the breast. There is no scientific evidence to support this theory.

However, it is important that you wear a correctly fitting bra as not wearing the right sized or supportive bra can lead to breast pain.

Myth 5: Breast cancer is only a problem which affects women

This isn’t true: whilst each year in the UK, 55,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer, 350 men are also diagnosed each year. Although this is a much smaller number in comparison to women, it’s still important for men to report any changes to their doctor.  

Having a close male family member (brother or father) with a history of breast cancer can mean you have a higher risk of having breast cancer, so make sure this information is shared with family members, or any medical professional if you are having breast issues. 

Myth 6: I don’t have any symptoms, so I don’t need to attend screening appointments or health check ups

Female health checks and cancer screening across all ages are there to detect any early signs of abnormalities and cancer. It’s important to attend all your female health checks and to know how to identify important changes in your own body.

Even if you’re showing no unusual symptoms, you should attend your checks and screening appointments as these can detect abnormalities before you start showing any symptoms. Early detection is key to effectively treating cancers; attending all appointments – even if you’re feeling well – is vital.

Myth 7: I have a breast lump and I am due my routine screening mammogram, so I don’t need to see a doctor

Not all breast cancers are apparent on mammogram. If you’ve found a breast abnormality you need to see your doctor, as you may need other tests in addition to a mammogram to rule out breast cancer.

Mammograms are designed for women without any symptoms and will pick up around 4 in 5 breast cancers.  They aren’t 100% accurate in showing if a person has breast cancer, so it shouldn’t replace seeing your GP if you have new symptoms.

If you’ve had a normal mammogram and subsequently find a lump or a change, it’s important you also see your GP just as urgently, as you may need an ultrasound scan or other tests to rule out breast cancer. 

Breast cancer is not an easy topic to talk about, but it is important to guard against fake, misleading and ill-informed medical information that potentially poses significant risks. Help us fight back against misinformation by sharing this article with your friends and family today and connect with us on Instagram here where we’ll be continuining the conversation on all things breast cancer this month.

Photos by Klaus Nielsen & Olya Kobruseva from Pexels

15 thoughts on “Breast cancer: what you’ve always wanted to know + misconceptions to avoid

  • This is a great and knowledgeable post! This questions are scary and hard to ask. I am a midwife and woman’s care provider and know how difficult it can be for women to get checked for breast cancer. There are many questions that I think you did a beautiful job covering!

  • I had no idea that men can get breast cancer, learn something new every day! Great information, very thorough and helpful.

  • Thankfully right now I am low in the breast cancer risk factors. My great grandmother had it, but most don’t consider that a close enough relation to me. I used to work for a gynecologist so have heard a lot of these myths and heard them debunked, too.

  • So much great information that you’ve shared. Not a lot of people know that men can get breast cancer. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Such important information to keep us safe from breast cancer and aware of precautions. Thank you for the information.

  • I always thought cancer is a scary thing. It`s something we dont want to have running in the family. Thanks for sharing these info. It`s one of the good things we can do, learn more about cancer and be aware

  • I can`t imaging what you`ve been through. Thanks for sharing your story. Truly, A lot of misconception have been passed down to us. Thanks you for taking action to spread awareness and educating more and more people

  • This is such a great article to debunk myths about breast cancer. We need to be aware of it as it affects a significant fraction of our population. I am a breast cancer awareness advocate.

  • I’ve heard another misconception about breat cancer.. They say that using deodorants will put you on higher risk of getting breast cancers because of some of its chemical contents. My auntie was a breast cancer survivor and she never failed to remind my mom and my sister to always have them checked regularly
    Thanks for sharing the awareness

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