Health & Fitness

Seven myths about breast health and mammograms

Sen. Claire McCaskill’s announcement that she has breast cancer highlights the importance of women getting mammograms.
Sen. Claire McCaskill’s announcement that she has breast cancer highlights the importance of women getting mammograms. Associated Press

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri announced Monday that she has breast cancer, which was detected through a regular mammogram. “It’s a little scary, but my prognosis is good,” she said.

But what women don’t know about breast health can, in some cases, be fatal.

Physicians were quick to point out that McCaskill's diagnosis, for instance, reinforces the importance of mammograms, X-ray pictures of the breast.

Advice on how often to have mammograms, and when to start them, however, got very complicated last fall.

The American Cancer Society issued new guidelines recommending that women with an average risk of breast cancer have mammograms every year beginning at age 45 until age 54, then every two years thereafter.

The society previously told women to get annual mammograms starting at 40. Its new guidelines said that women 40 to 44 should still “have the opportunity” to have mammograms if they want them, and that women 55 and older should be able to have them once a year if they choose.

The recommendation does not match advice from other health groups, some of which still recommend annual mammograms every year beginning at age 40.

And it doesn’t sound anything like the recent controversial recommendation from the U.S. Preventative Task Force — an independent panel of primary care experts — which reiterated its advice that mammograms be performed only every other year for women ages 50 to 74.

Without a clear consensus on breast cancer screening, most organizations recommend that women talk to their doctors about the pros and cons of mammography and when to begin screening.

Here are some commonly held misconceptions about breast health.

1. Annual mammograms increase your risk of cancer because of the radiation they use.

Yes, mammograph machines use radiation. But the amount is low and safe, according to the American Cancer Society.

Every person is exposed to certain daily levels of radiation, known as background radiation. The dose that a woman getting a mammogram of both breasts receives is about the same amount she would get from her natural surroundings over about seven weeks.

Older machines that used higher amounts of radiation are no longer used.

2. Whew! My mammogram report was negative. Nothing to worry about.

Not entirely true. Mammograms have been known to fail to detect about 10 to 20 percent of breast cancers, which is why breast exams performed by your health care provider, and self-exams, are still considered important.

3. Oh no. I found a lump. I have cancer.

About 80 percent of lumps in women’s breasts are benign, caused by cysts or noncancerous conditions. But if you find a lump in your breast that persists, or notice any changes in the breast tissue, tell your doctor. A mammogram, ultrasound or biopsy can determine whether a lump is cancerous.

And a note about breast self-exams: Don’t use them as your only weapon against breast cancer. They are increasingly being phased out as a screening tool.

Studies have shown that self-exams don’t offer the early detection and survival benefits of other screening tests, including mammograms. But the exam is still important so a woman knows what her breasts normally look and feel like.

4. I didn’t find a lump during my self-exam, so I must not have cancer.

Breast cancer doesn’t always present itself in the form of a lump.

Here’s what else you need to be looking for, according to Prevention: breast pain or nipple tenderness; a change in how the breast or nipple feels or looks; a lump or thickening in or near the breast or in the underarm area; scaly, red or swollen skin on the breast, areola or nipple; a breast that feels warm to the touch, and nipple discharge.

If you find any of those things, tell your doctor.

5. I won’t get breast cancer because I have small breasts.

Don’t kid yourself. Breast size doesn’t have anything to do with your chances of getting breast cancer.

However, larger breasts can be more difficult to examine with a mammogram or clinical breast exam than smaller ones.

And truth? Ladies with larger breasts might find the mammogram procedure uncomfortable — all that breast squeezed between two plates of glass — but the exam lasts just a few seconds.

6. I’m a guy, so I can’t get breast cancer.

Wrong. So wrong. Every year about 2,190 men are diagnosed with breast cancer, and more than 400 of them will die.

Like women, men should do breast self-exams and tell their doctors if they see or feel any changes. In men, breast cancer is typically found as a hard lump under the nipple and areola.

7. I drink coffee, use antiperspirants, wear an underwire bra and use chemical straighteners and relaxers in my hair. I’m going to get breast cancer!

So many myths, so little time to debunk them. None of those things has been proved to cause breast cancer.

And good news for coffee drinkers: Some early research suggests that caffeine might actually lower your risk of breast cancer.

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