Popular breast cancer myths busted

Patients at Toronto hospitals often have misperceptions about the causes of breast cancer. Do deodorants, breast implants or underwire bras cause breast cancer? The answer is no for all three cases, according to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

As a nurse working in Toronto, Arlene Dedis sometimes finds herself helping patients understand the different types of factors that cause breast cancer. She has discovered that, among other myths, patients often believe that a person’s genetic makeup is the main factor that contributes to their risk of developing the disease.

“They have family members that have different cancer types so . . . the first thing they think of is: If somebody has (a type of) cancer, will I end up with . . . cancer? And with women, the first (cancer) they’re going to think of is breast,” Dedis said.

In reality, according to Natalie Gierman from the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation in Ontario, family history and genetics account for only five to 10 per cent of breast cancer cases. Lots of people look surprised when they find out these statistics, Gierman said.

Many myths exist about the causes and detection of breast cancer. Some of the myths are harmless, like the one that links wearing underwire bras to cancer. Others – like alcohol having no effect on a woman’s breast cancer risk – are more serious in that they can prevent women from taking some necessary precautions to reduce their risks of developing breast cancer.

Gierman, the director of health promotion, policy and advocacy at the Toronto-based foundation, has seen that many women believe the myth that alcohol has no effect on breast cancer risk.

“If somebody hears that alcohol is not a risk factor and they can drink as much as they want, then they might be putting themselves at risk,” Gierman said. “Alcohol is a known risk factor.”

Gierman has seen studies that show all types of alcohol increase the risk of breast cancer. In fact, if a person has two or more drinks a day, they can increase their risk of breast cancer by up to 25 per cent.

The popular myth that alcohol doesn’t impact the risk of breast cancer is especially worrying when recent studies show that binge drinking among young women is becoming a public health issue, Gierman said.

Although men can also get diagnosed with breast cancer, women have a much higher risk of developing the disease. One in every nine Canadian women is expected to develop breast cancer during her lifetime, Gierman said. In contrast, less than one per cent of all breast cancer cases involve men.

The high number of women diagnosed with the disease has led the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation to launch pages on its website that inform readers about the known causes of breast cancer. The foundation had discovered, through surveys and other research, that many women had inaccurate inaccurate information about the causes of breast cancer.

“Many of them are very misinformed about what real breast cancer risks are,” Gierman said. “They also really felt like there was nothing they could do.”

Marsha Davidson, the executive director at the Breast Cancer Society of Canada, believes it’s important for people to know the facts about breast cancer.

“I think education is important for everybody and the more informed we can all be, the (better) chances we’ll have of combating any disease we may encounter in our lives,” she said.

Davidson, who lives in Sarnia, Ont., hopes that rather than believing the myth about genetic makeup, more people will consider making changes to their lifestyle.

“Especially in the type of breast cancer that hits postmenopausal women, there’s definitely a strong link between obesity and breast cancer,” Davidson said.

She has seen studies that show people’s diet, the amount of exercise they get, as well as the amount of pollution in their environment will influence their risk of developing breast cancer. However, many people don’t know that environmental factors can have an effect on breast cancer risks.

Other myths surrounding breast cancer include the false information that bruising the breasts or having an abortion can cause the disease.

Throughout 20 years of working as a nurse, Dedis has found it difficult to find the origins of the different myths. Patients generally tell her they heard the information from someone or somewhere; however, they don’t specify a particular source.

Dedis has attended conferences that, among other things, informed her of the different misinterpretations about breast cancer causes. She believes knowing what’s real has helped her address some concerns.

“You can pass that knowledge on to everybody,” Dedis said. “If you’re educated (about breast cancer) then you can educate others, whether it’s family members or friends or people that you meet along the way.”

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