Breast cancer myths and prevention

What is a myth? Can we prevent breast cancer (BC)? How far apart are these topics? About as far apart as possibly trying to answer these questions?

Why did I spend seven hours in an airport train station? My younger son (Caleb) face-planted down a mountain (the Matterhorn); was air-evac to a hospital; underwent surgery; and then came back with his dad (the MVP – most valuable player) to resume our holiday.

What is a myth?

It’s a story not based on fact, such as skiing    on fresh snow, on a non-difficult slope, is not dangerous. Sadly life is. Another myth is accidents can be prevented. Prevented – a word that means you can stop something from happening, such as colds and flu, cancer or snow accidents.

You can’t prevent 100%, but one can decrease the risk…don’t go skiing on a nursery slope; stay away from snotty, sneezy people. Still, you can’t prevent a slip, a fall, a fracture. Life happens; cells change and cancer can happen to anyone.

Types of myths

There are many myths. Some of my favourite are from the 16th century. New ones are created every day. A bit like computer viruses. I don’t get the point of them. Why create a computer virus? Why disrupt life with pointless irritations that do harm and no good?

Myths usually start with a person experiencing a situation and then a story starts without detailed factual research or numbers.

Old breast cancer myths

  • The milk-rejection sign – the breast that your baby sucks on the least, is more likely to get BC.
  • Only women with a family history of BC get BC. Actually, 70% of women who get BC have no identifiable risks.
  • Breast size, lumpiness and prostheses are related to BC risk.
  • Your family history on your father’s side is not equally important as your mother’s side.

Modern breast cancer myths

  • Mammograms cause BC. This is based on old radiology data, where the radiation exposure of X-rays (think Marie Curie) confirmed increased cancer risk. True but false for modern mammograms. Technically, there is more risk in a shopping mall and on an aeroplane.
  • Cell phones cause BC. This is hard to prove as there is lots of data about cell phone radiation but nothing solid on the BC front.
  • Underwire bras cause BC because they restrict the lymph drainage from the breast. Well, according to da Vinci and co-anatomy dudes (and anatomy hasn’t changed over time) only form and gravity causes anatomically visible position and shape changes. So, the lymph drainage occurs deep along the pec muscle and is not prevented by bras. So, wear one if you want.
  • Sweat from bras, or constricting the girls in tight training bras causes BC. No, they don’t. And, the parabens from roll-ons don’t get absorbed backwards from the armpit into the lymph.
  • Lipstick, particularly the lead in expensive lipstick, causes lead toxicity and BC. This is my best yet! Not true. And, just by the way hair straighteners also don’t cause BC.
  • How about trauma to the breast? I hear this often, “I fell and hit my breast.” Horse bites, other bites, babies biting, overzealous partner breast behaviour…with the resultant, “I got a cancer because of the truama I went through.” No, sadly the trauma merely alerted them to a problem, and then they went for screening.

Other cancer myths

  • Cancer can be caught from other people.
  • Cancer has been cured and the pharmaceutical companies are not releasing the cure so they can sell their drugs. Now, I don’t even know where to begin; except that not one thing causes cancer, rather lots of little mutation changes at a cell level. So, it is near impossible at this stage to work out all the little cell high jinks, and have one drug that cures or prevents all cancer.
  • Exposing a tumour to air during surgery causes a cancer to spread (fiction), along with needle biopsies causes cancer to spread (try and avoid surgery to diagnose breast cancer. A needle biopsy can give much information and help type the cancer so it can be treated).
  • This wonder herb/substance/procedure/drug/vitamin can cure all cancer. Again, look at the person next to you. Do you look the same or act the same? No, so why do you think one substance will give the same result for all different cancers (considering even BCs are not all the same)?

Fact or fiction

  • Does fertility treatment increase BC risk? Studies don’t support this.
  • Do power lines cause an increase in BC risk? Two big US studies debunked this. Further environmental studies are important.
  • Does having an abortion increase your risk? Again not backed by studies.
  • Do supplements (I take lots) decrease your BC risk? Well probiotics (we don’t know which or how much) do play an important role in cancer risk reduction as well as vitamin D, but the data around the rest is sketchy. Supplements are there to supplement what you’re suppose to take in dietary form – so people like me, who forget to eat live on strong black coffee and green tea, may use supplements as a food group. NOT GOOD!
  • Mushrooms; turmeric (curcumin); the greens; the yellows and reds taken in raw form (yum) are beneficial. Again the data is sketchy.

The can you prevent road

  • Dairy causes cancer (nope); caffeine causes cancer (relief here), in fact may be protective.
  • Obesity is related to increased breast cancer risk. Yes, particularly post-menopausal and weight gain later in life. So, watch the input.

Cancer feeds on sugar. Actually, all cells do. I am a strong proponent of staying away from fast food, junk food, sodas and refined sugar. However, again there is no instant cause nor instant solution.

All the junk adds to the trunk

So, all the junk adds to the trunk…makes your engine battle to perform…bad fuel in the motor…resulting in your sports car (your body) revving, spluttering and breaking down.

How about we try for a balance? And, if one looks at scales (embarrassed emoji here post-holiday), the only cause of weight gain is input. Of course metabolism plays a role but my daughter always says, “you can’t run faster than your fork.”

Out run your cancer risk

You can run 10km a day (or hourly equivalent calorie burn) and thus allows yourself many forkfuls. But you can also try and out run your cancer risk; good data shows that exercise – moderate to significant aerobic exercise regularly (this would mean most days for over 45min) – decreases cancer risk.

Alcohol definitely increases BC risk; enjoy it rarely, not daily and in moderation. Hormone replacement therapy and possibly any long-term hormonal exposure also promote small increased risks.

Make the best of the cards you are dealt

We are all dealt a genetic blueprint, and cancer is the result of random genetic lottos. The message: Be your own best friend, change what you can and don’t feel guilty about what you can’t.

Being an anxious Chicken Little, the below comment is stressful for me as I would like happy ever after endings…In Jan 1, 2015, Dr Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal claimed, “Cancer is the best way to die because it gives people the chance to come to terms with their own mortality. A protracted death allowed time to say goodbye to loved ones. This is, I recognise, a romantic view of dying, but it is achievable with love, morphine, and whisky”.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Prof Carol-Ann Benn heads up an internationally accredited, multi-disciplinary breast cancer centre at Netcare Milpark Hospital. She lectures at Wits University and, in 2002, established the Breast Health Foundation.Prof Carol-Ann Benn heads up an internationally accredited, multi-disciplinary breast cancer centre at Netcare Milpark Hospital. She lectures at Wits University and, in 2002, established the Breast Health Foundation.

MEET OUR EXPERT – Prof Carol-Ann Benn

Prof Carol-Ann Benn heads up breast cancer centres at Helen Joseph Hospital and Netcare Milpark Hospital. She lectures at Wits University and, in 2002, established the Breast Health Foundation.