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Health Matters: Breast cancer myths.

Joanne Rose is a retired nurse with 35 years of experience in public health, health promotion and protection. She lives off grid in Stephenville, on her farm with her husband Tom, and is lucky enough to be surrounded by family. Health perspectives shared in this column are meant to inspire and inform, but not to replace the advice of your regular healthcare professional.

Each day last year, the Canadian Cancer Society reports that an estimated 75 Canadians heard the life changing words, “You have breast cancer”. It is the most common cancer, and the second leading cause of cancer deaths among Canadian women. October is Breast Health Month and a great opportunity to think about your breast health routine. Knowing your breasts is important.

Once a month take the time to look at your breasts and do a self-check for lumps and changes. During your annual visit to your health care provider, discuss your personal options for a clinical breast exam and / or a mammogram. Depending on your age and family history the recommendations may change. There are quite a few myths about breast cancer. The National Breast Cancer Foundation has provided some up to date information to help to understand the untruths.

Myth #1: Finding a lump in your breast means you have breast cancer.

Here’s The Truth: Only a small percentage of breast lumps turn out to be cancer. But if you discover a persistent lump in your breast that is new or notice any changes in breast tissue, it should never be ignored. It is very important that you see a physician for a clinical breast exam. He or she may possibly order breast imaging studies to determine if this lump is of concern or not.

Myth #2: Breast cancer only affects women. Men do not get breast cancer.

Here’s The Truth: To the contrary, each year it is estimated that about 2,190 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 410 will die. While this percentage is still small, men should check themselves periodically by doing a breast self-exam in the shower and reporting any changes to their physicians. Breast cancer in men is usually detected as a hard lump underneath the nipple and areola. Men carry a higher mortality than women do, primarily because awareness among men is lower and they are less likely to assume a lump is breast cancer, which can cause a delay in seeking treatment.

Myth #3: A mammogram can cause breast cancer to spread.

Here’s The Truth: A mammogram, or x-ray of the breast, currently remains the gold standard for the early detection of breast cancer. Breast compression while getting a mammogram cannot cause cancer to spread.

According to the National Cancer Institute, “The benefits of mammography nearly always outweigh the potential harm from the radiation exposure. Mammograms require very small doses of radiation.”

Myth #4: If you have a family history of breast cancer, you are likely to develop breast cancer yourself.

Here’s The Truth: While women who have a family history of breast cancer are in a higher risk group, most women who have breast cancer have no family history. Statistically only about 10 per cent of individuals diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history of this disease.

If you have a first degree relative with breast cancer: If you have a mother, daughter, or sister who developed breast cancer below the age of 50, you should consider some form of regular diagnostic breast imaging starting 10 years before the age of your relative’s diagnosis.

If you have a second degree relative with breast cancer: If you have had a grandmother or aunt who was diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk increases slightly, but it is not in the same risk category as those who have a first degree relative with breast cancer.

If you have multiple generations diagnosed with breast cancer on the same side of the family, or if there are several individuals who are first degree relatives to one another, or several family members diagnosed under age 50, the probability increases that there is a breast cancer gene contributing to the cause of this familial history.

Myth #5: If the gene mutation BRCA1 or BRCA2 is detected in your DNA, you will definitely develop breast cancer.

Here’s The Truth: According to the National Cancer Institute, regarding families who are known to carry BRCA1 or BRCA2, “a woman who has inherited a harmful mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 is about five times more likely to develop breast cancer than a woman who does not have such a mutation.”

For people who discover they have the harmful mutation, there are various proactive measures that can be taken to reduce risk. These include taking a hormonal therapy called Tamoxifen or deciding to take a surgical prevention approach which is to have bilateral prophylactic mastectomies, usually done with reconstruction.

Myth #6: Breast cancer is contagious.

Here’s The Truth: You cannot catch breast cancer or transfer it to someone else’s body. Breast cancer is the result of uncontrolled cell growth of mutated cells that begin to spread into other tissues within the breast. However, you can reduce your risk by practicing a healthy lifestyle, being aware of the risk factors, and following an early detection plan so that you will be diagnosed early if breast cancer were to occur.

The most important advice is to know your breasts and know your risks. Take note of any changes to your breasts and seek out a trained health professional if you have any concerns. Take part in routine mammography appropriate to your age and family history.

Most importantly, take care of yourself.

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