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Cancer Awareness - Addressing Breast Cancer Misconceptions

Why discuss breast cancer misconceptions? The single most significant risk for developing breast cancer is 'being' a woman. So as a woman (young or old), understanding your body and awareness of ways breast cancer develops, progresses and is treated is vital.

But men should read this article too, because learning about the condition helps you provide the vital support to a relative or friend if that becomes necessary.


Breast Mammogram

Often, the wrong information begins to circulate as the truth, meaning that we do not take the adequate steps necessary to reduce our risks.

In this article, we address some breast cancer misconceptions to help clarify misunderstanding around the condition and help us women engage in useful discussions about their health.


Introduction - What's Unique About Your Breasts?

As a woman, our breasts are important, without a doubt.

But apart from shape and size - how are they different to men's' breasts?

According to breastcancer.org:

"Women's breast development takes 3 to 4 years and is usually complete by age 14".

On the other hand, for many men, their breasts do not fully form. What this means is: men's breasts remain as fat cells, unlike women's breasts which develop into a functioning system of glands.

Let's be clear on what that means:

Your breasts are a special type of gland.

Glands are organs in the body that make and (or) release special substances that perform a particular function in the body. A typical example of a gland is the thyroid gland which produces and releases Thyroxine, a hormone without which our bodies will fail to function.

How is the female breast a gland? 

Well, it has active cells which are responsive to control by hormones like Oestrogen and Oxytocin. And after labour, the cells of the breast start to produce milk. 

Men's breasts do not have formed glands and hence do not produce milk; and are not responsive to hormones.

A biological difference like this is directly relevant to why women are more at risk than men for breast cancer.


How Does One Get Breast Cancer?

Another critical breast cancer misconception to address is how BC happens. Is it the result of an infection or poisoning?

We believe Breast Cancer begins from a mixed number of ways that are not yet fully understood.

Scientists recognise the place of a particular gene type and your family history as significant factors.

A family history means that someone else in your family has the condition - increasing the risk that you may also have it.

  • In some of these cases, there are unique genes in your family tree (BRCA1/BRCA2) which cause you to develop the disease after they pass these genes to you.

But in truth, inheriting a risk of breast cancer only makes up 5-10% of all cases of breast cancer.

In the majority of cases, women with breast cancer DO NOT have a family history.

There are environmental factors which further increase the risk.

This means factors that surround you, which can influence changes (known as mutations) in your breast tissue.

Smoking, being overweight, certain drugs, exposure to radiation or chemicals, alcohol are some possible examples scientists are still researching may have an impact on developing breast cancer by causing 'chronic inflammation' in the body.

We appreciate now that chronic inflammation in breast tissue could be what leads to the cells starting to mutate (grow abnormally) and resulting in breast cancer.

But what causes the inflammation in the first place may be the way your genes mix with the environmental factors.


Lady in sleeveless red top and jeans cupping both breasts

How Common Is Breast Cancer?

Worldwide, breast cancer is the most commonly occurring type of cancer among women.

It also causes the largest number of deaths due to cancer in women.

Breast cancer is still a disease more likely to happen in developed (higher-income) countries - BUT, the rates in lower/middle income countries is growing. 

Many women seem to believe that breast cancer is only a disease for middle-aged and older women.

Let's clarify this misconception.

Yes, it is true that after your gender, age is the next most significant risk for breast cancer.

But younger women can get breast cancer. 

In 2017, a US study showed about 4 women with invasive breast cancers out of every hundred women under age 40 compared to 20 breast cancer cases out of hundred for women in their 50s. (United States).

Nearly 30 out of every 100 women in the age group 60-69 years have invasive breast cancer.


Can Breast Cancer Be Detected in Your Blood?

Making a diagnosis of breast cancer has become easier over the years with technology advances.

Another breast cancer misconception about diagnosis is that taking a blood test will show whether or not you have the disease.

Sadly, this is untrue.

In advanced stages of breast cancer, there are blood tests used to detect 'tumour markers.'  

Tumour markers are mainly blood tests for certain substances which may indicate abnormal cancer activity. 

Most times, they are not specific - that means they do not give you a confirmation but indicate the need for more tests instead.

You may also find abnormal blood tests from the effect of cancer on different systems of your body. 

Examples are abnormal liver or kidney function tests or levels of Calcium - depending on which organs are affected. 

But again - these are NOT specific for breast cancer.

In the early stage, a woman with breast cancer usually does not show any abnormality in her blood tests that indicates she has the disease.

Most often, women may first visit the doctor with a lump or other abnormality in the breast - like nipple or skin changes.

To diagnose cancer, we have to rely on tests that look into the breast - ultrasound scans and direct examination of tissue (biopsy).


Can Breast Cancer be Cured?

To cure cancer - that is, eradicate the disease in such a way that it stops growing and never returns is still outside our reach - for now.

A popular but worrying breast cancer misconception that we see is a promise of breast cancer cure.

Most often, the cure is attributed to :

  • Herbal supplements/preparations
  • Antioxidant food sources
  • Traditional 'treatments' claiming to offer a cure but without scientific evidence

It's easy to fall prey to claims of cure when one is desperately worried about your health or that of a loved one's.

But at present, the best evidence we have is to detect breast cancer early and start treatments promptly.

The main treatments we have are surgery (removal of part or all of the breasts/both breasts) or chemotherapy (taking particular drugs which suppress the growth of cancer) or radiation therapy. 

Newer treatments like Immunotherapy are also being studied for their effectiveness.

Treatment may mean using one or a combination of these methods.

However, what determines the treatment choice? 

Well, its a combination of several things:

  • The extent of cancer - meaning (the size, stage, and grade of cancer, as well as its location)
  • The type of cancer (whether or not responsive to hormones; or linked to inherited gene abnormalities: BRCA1/BRCA2
  • The age of the woman
  • The woman's choice/preference
  • Other health conditions present
  • What is available to you (your local area and your resources)


Breast Cancer badge in purple colour on a white background

Why Does Breast Cancer come back after treatment?

There is another misconception about breast cancer. 

And it is that when you treat 'early' breast cancer, that's it. 

(Early breast cancer means cancer involving the breast and tissues close by such as the lymph nodes under the arm beside the breast.)

Breast Cancer can come back in the breast or chest area where the original cancer was found.

It can also return in a distant area, meaning it comes back in another part of the body, such as the bone, liver, or lungs.

The facts are that while the risk of breast cancer coming back is greatest in the first 2 to 5 years following diagnosis, later recurrences can happen. 

Even at 20 years after diagnosis, people with low stage breast cancer have a 15–20% chance of recurrence - Breastcancer.org.

But how does it even come back?

Spread of Cancer Cells

Well, your body has highly effective transportation networks.

Your blood is the medium for transporting nutrients from food as well as other substances like hormones.

A parallel network to your blood vessels is through the lymphatic system. 

Lymph is a liquid in your body which carries waste material from different organs away for excretion through your spleen and kidneys.

Thus, through both these means, materials are carried from one part of the body to another.

Breast cancer cells take advantage of these networks to spread.

This is one way it happens:

During an operation to remove original breast cancer, the surgeon removes all the cancer tissue they can see or feel. 

It could happen whether the surgery is to remove a lump (lumpectomy) or the entire breast (mastectomy). 

However, the current cancer tests aren't sensitive enough to detect tiny groups of cancer cells that may be leftover after surgery. 

Therefore, isolated groups of cells can survive surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy intended to reduce the risk of recurrence. 

Even a single cell that escaped treatment may be able to multiply and grow into a tumour. 

So this is how breast cancer can spread or 'come back'.

Therefore, please remember that treating breast cancer early does not mean it will not come back. But this is a lot better than treating it late. 


Where is the place of Complementary (Holistic) Medicine in treating Breast Cancer?

We should be very clear about the roles of other forms of medicine - that is outside of the usual medicine techniques we find in most hospitals.

The goal of complementary medicine is to balance the whole person — physically, mentally, and emotionally — WHILE conventional medicine does its work. (breastcancer.org)

Some examples of complementary therapy include:

  • acupuncture
  • yoga
  • prayer
  • music therapy 
  • massage.

To be very clear - there is no evidence to date that any form of alternative or complementary therapies alone can TREAT or CURE breast cancer.

However, for many people diagnosed with breast cancer, these therapies have helped to:

  • relieve symptoms
  • ease treatment side effects
  • improve the quality of life

These are essential aspects of cancer care. 


What are the chances of Survival after a diagnosis?

Breast cancer does not immediately kill. 

Even the most aggressive forms of the disease will not result in death straight away.

For instance, women who have breast cancer have died from other unrelated problems like a stroke or a heart attack.

Certain factors determine how quickly breast cancer can kill:

  • the size of the breast cancer
  • the stage of the breast cancer: whether the cancer is only in the breast or has spread 
  • the type of breast cancer and its sensitivity to hormones 
  • how quickly the tumour is growing
  • the rate of cell growth
  • how likely the cancer is to come back (recurrence)
  • whether cancer has just been diagnosed or is a recurrence
  • how old you are
  • your menopausal status
  • your general health

Often, depending on these factors, doctors talk about survival rates to explain the chance of survival.

 A 5-year survival rate, for instance, means the percentage of people who live at least 5 years after being diagnosed with breast cancer. 

It is a general estimate, and most people can /do live longer than 5 years.

Early diagnosis and treatment, access to the right treatment, support after diagnosis are also crucial elements.

According to the American Cancer Society, 5-year survival rates associated with breast cancer by the stage of cancer when diagnosed range from 100% (stage 0) to around 22% (stage 4).


Conclusion

Dealing with cancer involves a combination of different measures - adequate health awareness is essential to combat harmful breast cancer misconceptions.

Having the right information helps you make the right decisions.

Don't forget the main lifestyle choices that may reduce one's risk of Breast Cancer:

  •  maintaining a healthy weight
  • exercising regularly
  • limiting alcohol
  • eating nutritious food
  • never smoking

Learn more about other topics related to breast cancer here.


More Reading:

References:

  • Breastcancer.org - https://www.breastcancer.org/risk/factors/woman
  • You and Your Hormones - https://www.yourhormones.info/glands/
  • The Breast - https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-41873-5_27 
  • Breast Cancer Report - WHO (https://www.who.int/cancer/prevention/diagnosis-screening/breast-cancer/en/)

Editing By AskAwayHealth

Disclaimer

All AskAwayHealth articles are written by practising  Medical Practitioners on a wide range of health care conditions to provide evidence-based guidance and to help promote quality health care. The advice in our material is not meant to replace the management of your specific condition by a qualified health care practitioner.
To discuss your condition, please contact a health practitioner or reach us directly through info@askawayhealth.org

Image Credits - Canva

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