Cancer is one of the scariest words in the English language, and for women, breast cancer could be one of the most dreaded diagnoses.
Fortunately, the modern age has brought a number of medical and technological advancements that have vastly improved breast cancer detection and treatment. Still, myths abound about breast cancer, including who's at risk for developing it and what its treatment entails.
Here are the facts behind five myths you've probably heard.
Myth: The earlier you start having mammograms, the better.
Fact: Having too many mammograms over the course of your life can increase your risk of radiation-induced breast cancer. In addition, young women have denser breasts, which show up white in mammography. Because cancer shows up white, as well, there's a high likelihood of false positives, which might result in unnecessary anxiety and surgical procedures.
When should you start getting tested? Breast specialists of The Christ Hospital Health Network recommend mammograms beginning at age 40 annually and conducting regular breast self-exams starting around the age of 20. Regular mammograms are the most important for catching things early, even before you may be able to feel or see it. Typically, the earlier you get treatment for breast cancer, the better the result.
Myth: All breast lumps are cancerous.
Fact: Few lumps denote breast cancer, and almost all women will find a lump or two in her lifetime. The key to knowing when a lump should be checked is if it is persistent (doesn't come and go), if it grows or spreads, or if there is pain or redness associated with it. Even then, lumps can be caused by a number of things. For example, mastitis is a common cause of painful breast lumps during breastfeeding. Only a doctor can tell you the cause of a lump.
Myth: Most people who develop breast cancer have a family history of it.
Fact: About 10 percent of people with breast cancer have a family history with it, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. You have a slightly increased likelihood of developing the disease if several close relatives have had it, but the odds are in your favor that you won't get it.
Doctors suggest if your close relative (mother, sister, daughter) developed breast cancer before age 40, you should start getting breast exams 10 years before the age when she was diagnosed.
Myth: There's nothing you can do to prevent breast cancer.
Fact: Some breast cancers are hereditary, but lifestyle and environmental factors contribute to the majority of them. Women can reduce their risk of breast cancer by "losing weight if they're obese, getting regular exercise, lowering or eliminating alcohol consumption" and by quitting smoking, says health.com.
Myth: All women with breast cancer die, or all live.
Fact: Neither absolute is true. Treatments for breast cancer have made astounding leaps in the past few decades, and approximately 90 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer survive five years or longer afterward.
However, not all women diagnosed with breast cancer have a 90 percent survival rate. It depends on the severity of the cancer, whether it's spread to the lymph nodes or distant regions of the body, and what kind of treatment is used to remove or destroy the cancer cells (lumpectomy, mastectomy, radiation, etc.).
The most important thing you can do to improve your odds of surviving breast cancer is to pay close attention to changes in your body and talk with your doctor about your concerns. Even if you are not old enough for regular mammograms, you should discuss breast cancer risks with your doctor and learn about symptoms now.