Cindy Cooke, PhD, DNP, FNP-C, FAANP
Thanks to increased awareness – which has led to spikes in funding, screening and the discovery of better treatments – a woman’s risk of dying from breast cancer has dropped 38 percent since the late 1980s. In that time, more than 300,000 lives have been saved, underscoring the power of increased public awareness and education in revolutionizing how women advocate for their own health.
Still, even with the most robust disease advocacy in history, awareness alone will not end breast cancer. This year, more than 250,000 women will be diagnosed with the disease, and even with the abundance of information out there, common misperceptions will still lead women at risk astray. Here are six dangerous myths I hear from patients too often, along with some fast facts to help you keep breast cancer in check.
MYTH: I don’t have a family history of breast cancer, so I don’t need to be screened. Unfortunately, simply being a woman is by far the single biggest breast cancer risk. Women are 200 times more likely to get breast cancer than men, and almost 90 percent have no family history of the disease. As if gender bias isn’t enough, getting older is the second biggest risk factor. Nearly 80 percent of new cases are in women over the age of 50, and the odds of being diagnosed go from one in 229 in your thirties to one in 27 in your 70s. Understanding that just by being a woman you are at risk of developing breast cancer and that your risk grows with each birthday should help motivate you to get the recommended screenings.
MYTH: It won’t make a difference if I put off my mammogram for six months. Mammograms are inconvenient. Hectic schedules, lack of child care and the inability to miss work can cause women to skip their regular screening, but those extra months could take years off your life. Many women don’t realize that survival rates for stage 0 or stage 1 breast cancer are close to 100 percent, but decline to 72 percent by stage III and to 22 percent after metastasis has occurred. A six-month delay in receiving a mammogram can decrease your odds of surviving breast cancer, so don’t be so quick to cancel that mammogram appointment.
MYTH: Breast cancer is only a problem for older women. Breast cancer is most common in women between the ages of 55 to 64, but younger women are at risk too. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women ages 15 to 39, and each year, more than 70,000 among them are diagnosed. Usually, these cancers are more aggressive with lower survival rates, so it’s important that providers screen for abnormalities when you are young. Self-exams are also key for this age group. Nearly 80 percent of women with an early breast cancer diagnosis found a cancerous lump on her own, so make sure you are checking regularly.
MYTH: All women should follow the same screening recommendations. Rule followers find it frustrating that major breast cancer organizations have conflicting recommendations on when and how frequently to get a mammogram. These groups do agree on one thing, however, and that is to encourage patients and providers to use informed decision making. A nurse practitioner can help you develop a plan of attack that is right for your age, lifestyle and other risk factors, and then help you stick to it. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but no approach is not an option.
MYTH: All risk is created equal. Women average a 12 percent risk of developing breast cancer, but some have a risk well over 20 percent, which earns them a spot in the high-risk category. Generally, high risk is the culmination of personal and hereditary factors. Personal factors include things like having dense breast tissue, getting your period early in life, having no children, having a precancerous breast condition or taking hormone replacement therapy. Layer over hereditary factors like family history of cancers that can be genetic cancer gene mutations, and some women have significantly higher calculated breast cancer risk. Talk to your provider about where you stand, and if you are high risk, adjust your screening and prevention strategies to help you beat the odds. At the very least, this should include a mammogram and an MRI every year.
MYTH: Breast cancer is the single biggest health threat to women. Women are more afraid of breast cancer than of any other illness — despite the fact that heart disease is actually the biggest danger. Heart disease kills more women over 65 years of age than all other cancers combined, and women are four to six times more likely to die of heart disease than of breast cancer. This doesn’t mean you should ease up on breast cancer screening, however. Lifestyle changes that reduce your risk for breast cancer like losing weight, exercising, quitting smoking and limiting your alcohol intake will also reduce your heart disease risk, which is a win-win for maintaining good health.
There are more than 3.1 million breast cancer survivors living in the U.S., and this number will continue to rise as better treatments become available and more women transfer awareness into action. Dispelling some of the most common myths that keep women from good breast health is a critical first step, and October is the perfect month to correct bad habits. If you are behind on screening or need the motivation to make healthy lifestyle changes, now is the time. Talk to your healthcare provider about steps you can take today that just may save your life in the future.