In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we asked Lawrence Memorial Hospital oncologist Jodie Barr to weigh in on a few of the most commonly held myths and misconceptions surrounding the disease.
When should I get my first mammogram?
“There’s been a lot of debate” in recent years over screening guidelines, Barr says. The U.S. Preventative Task Force received quite a bit of flak in 2009 when it issued a recommendation that women start screening for breast cancer at age 50. It’s undergone a slight revamp since, Barr explains, but the USPTF maintains its original recommendation that mammogram screenings are most beneficial for women 50 to 74 and should be scheduled every two years.
That doesn’t mean younger women aren’t at risk for developing the disease, Barr cautions. While she suggests limiting exposure to mammograms in women under 40, Barr also says it’s important to take family history into account. She encourages those with a higher risk of the disease (and any patient, really) to discuss the issue with a physician before deciding what makes sense.
I found a lump. Should I assume the worst?
“Not necessarily,” Barr says. “A lot of women, especially with their menstrual period, will have change in their breasts” over time, she explains. Aside from feeling tender, swollen or painful when touched, breasts can also develop masses due to the extra fluid retained during periods.
Pregnancy, breastfeeding and other normal hormonal changes can also alter breast texture. Still, Barr says, “If you feel a lump, you’ve got to get it checked out, no matter what.”
Do bras cause breast cancer? ... and other myths
There are multiple theories floating around the Internet about the dangers of underwire bras and antiperspirants, both of which have been rumored to create toxic buildup in the breasts, leading to cancer. There’s no scientific data to support either of these claims, Barr says.
Same with coffee, which has actually been linked, in a string of recent studies, with a decreased risk for breast cancer in postmenopausal women.
I’m a guy. Should I be worried about breast cancer?
Breast cancer in men is rare, accounting for just 1 percent of all breast cancer cases in the U.S., but it does exist. Men also claim lower survival rates than their female peers, according to numbers collected from the National Cancer Database.
Be aware, says Barr, and know your family history. Men with the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutation (the inherited mutation has been linked with breast, ovarian and other types of cancer) and/or a strong family history (i.e., a mother or sister who has been diagnosed with breast cancer) should talk with their physician, Barr suggests.
The disease, she says, manifests itself much the same in men’s bodies as in women’s. It’s also “just as curable,” she adds.
Are self-exams still a thing?
Though the U.S. Preventative Task Force advises against clinicians teaching breast self-examination to their patients, Barr hasn’t ruled out the exercise just yet: “I’ve had enough patients that came in (to the clinic) that found their lump” themselves, she says.
Based on her opinion as a medical professional and what she sees frequently in her practice, Barr retains the belief that “it’s reasonable to always know what’s going on in your own body.”
Try working a self-exam (you can find detailed instructions at www.breastcancer.org) into your shower or getting-ready routine every month or so, suggests Barr, but avoid exams during menstrual periods, when breast tissue is likely to change.
Other than that...
“The most important thing, really, is a healthy lifestyle,” Barr says. “The only thing” that has been linked with greater risk of breast cancer is obesity, she adds. (Increased risk of postmenopausal breast cancer is thought to be caused by higher levels of estrogen in obese women, according to the National Cancer Institute.)
So, as with any health condition, a balanced diet and regular exercise are key.