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The truth behind 8 common breast cancer myths

Confused about breast cancer? You're not alone. There is a great deal of information available about the disease, but not all of it is clear or accurate. Here's a look at eight common myths about breast cancer and the truth behind them.

Myth: You won’t develop breast cancer unless it runs in your family.

Truth: Roughly two-thirds of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease, says Joanne Armstrong, MD, the lead for Women's Health programs at Aetna. However, the risk may increase for women whose family history includes:

  • Multiple close relatives, such as your mom, sisters, or aunts, who had breast and/or ovarian cancer
  • Multiple generations with breast and/or ovarian cancer on the same side of the family
  • Close relatives who developed breast cancer at a young age
  • Male relatives with breast cancer  

Because breast cancer can happen to anyone, it’s important for all women to get mammograms regularly. Guidelines can vary among health organizations. The American Cancer Society recommends annual screenings for women age 45 and older, though they may start as early as age 40. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screenings every two years for women 50 to 74. Talk to your doctor about what is right for you.

Myth: If you carry the BRCA gene, you’ll get breast cancer.

Truth: Everyone has the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which help with cell growth and division and repairing damage to DNA. But there are some identified mutations or alterations in genes—including the BRCA1 and BRCA2 family of genes—that can be passed down in families and increase the risk for developing breast or ovarian cancer. About 5 to 10 percent of people diagnosed with breast cancer carry this mutation.

Not every woman with a strong family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer carries a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, and not everyone who carries BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations will develop cancer, Armstrong says. In other words, testing positive for the mutations does not mean you will develop cancer. Similarly, a negative test result doesn’t guarantee you will not develop cancer.

If you're concerned about your family's breast cancer history, talk to your doctor about whether you're at genetic risk and consider consulting a genetic counselor for more information. Genetic counselors are specially trained professionals who evaluate genetic risk for cancer and other disorders and can provide recommendations on testing options and ways to reduce the risk of disease. Genetic counselors can be found on Aetna’s online provider directory, DocFind.

If you have a loved one who has been diagnosed with cancer, learn how you can provide the right practical and emotional support.

Myth: Antiperspirants, bras, hair dyes, dairy, and cell phone use all cause breast cancer.

Truth: Don't toss out your underwire bra just yet. There’s no scientific evidence linking bra type (including underwire bras), bra size, or breast size to an elevated risk for breast cancer.

The same is true for antiperspirants, deodorants, particular foods, hair dyes, and cell phone use, Armstrong says. Breast cancer has been linked to lifestyle and environmental factors, though. To help lower your risk, experts recommend maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and limiting the amount of alcohol you drink.

Myth: People with breast cancer always find a lump.

Truth: Most lumps in the breast are not cancer, and not everyone with cancer can feel a lump. In fact, in its earliest stages, most breast cancers may not cause lumps. Talk to your doctor if you feel a lump or notice changes in your breast that may be a sign for concern. These include breast or nipple pain, swelling in the breast, skin irritation or dimpling, nipple retraction (turning inward), or scaliness of the nipple of skin. This is one reason experts recommend regular mammograms, which can identify breast abnormalities before they can be seen.

Myth: Mammograms don’t save lives.

Truth: Some swear by mammograms, others are more skeptical. The truth is that mammograms do save lives by finding breast cancer early, when treatment is most successful, Armstrong says. However, mammograms aren't foolproof. While they can provide early detection, cancer can still develop in between screenings.

Myth: Breast implants can raise your cancer risk.

Truth: Research shows that women with breast implants are at no greater risk of getting breast cancer than women without them. That said, breast implants may make it harder to read mammograms, so additional X-rays are sometimes needed to more fully examine breast tissue.

Myth: You can be too old (or too young) to get breast cancer.

Truth: Your risk of breast cancer increases as you age. According to the National Cancer Institute, one in 227 women will be diagnosed with the disease at age 30. By age 40, the odds are one in 68; by age 70, it’s one in 26.

Myth: Men can’t get breast cancer.

Truth: Although less common, breast cancer is diagnosed in about 2,000 men in the U.S. each year, or about 1 percent of all new cases, according to the CDC. Armstrong says men usually detect breast cancer during a self-exam, when they find a mass, so be sure to talk to your doctor about any new growths or lumps. She adds that men who develop breast cancer may be at higher risk for carrying a BRCA mutation and should consider genetic counseling to better understand the genetic risk.

Whether you have breast cancer or not, experts say it’s vital to learn the facts about the disease. "It's important for women and men to educate themselves about breast cancer so that they can make informed decisions about screening, risk reduction and treatment options," Armstrong explains. "As with any disease, knowledge is one of your most powerful tools for protecting your health."

If you’re an Aetna member who has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, visit Aetna Navigator or call the phone number on the back of your health plan card to learn about the resources and benefits available to you.

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