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Breast Cancer Risks and Myths

Soon after her son was born, Melissa Thompson noticed a small bump in her left breast. She called her doctor and was startled to get the instruction "come in right away." Suddenly, what had at first been a minor development seemed life threatening. What if she had breast cancer?

Fortunately for Melissa, the lump was early mastitis, an easily treated and nonthreatening condition many nursing moms encounter. But the experience was a wake-up call, she says.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) says breast cancer remains the most common cancer in women. More than 190,000 in the U.S. will be diagnosed with the disease in 2001. Breast cancer death rates did decline significantly between 1992 and 1996 -- thanks largely to early detection efforts and improved treatments. But breast cancer remains a threat, and more so for some women than others.

Here are some important risk factors that play a role in determining who gets breast cancer.

  • Age: 77 percent of those who develop breast cancer are over 50 years old.
  • Race: White woman are most at risk to develop the disease, but African-American woman are more likely to die of this cancer because often they are diagnosed later when the cancer is more advanced. Asian, Hispanic, and Native American women are at lower risk of developing breast cancer.
  • Menstrual history: Women who started menstruating at an early age (before age 12) or who went through menopause at a late age (after age 50) have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer.
  • Breastfeeding: Some studies suggest that breastfeeding may slightly lower breast cancer risk, especially if breastfeeding is continued for one and a half to two years.
  • Childbearing: Women who have had no children or who had their first child after age 30 have a slightly higher breast cancer risk.
  • Alcohol consumption: Women who have one alcoholic drink a day have a slight increase in risk but those who have two to five drinks daily have about 1.5 times the risk of women who drink no alcohol at all.
  • Obesity: Being overweight is associated with an increased risk of developing breast cancer, especially for women after menopause.

Be alert to risk factors for breast cancer, but also be aware that many myths and rumors about the disease abound. The following factors have been determined by the ACS to have no impact on a woman's likelihood of developing breast cancer:

  • Antiperspirants: Internet e-mail rumors claiming that chemicals in underarm antiperspirants are absorbed through the skin causing breast cancer are unfounded. There is no evidence to support this rumor.
  • Underwire bras: There is no scientific basis that supports the myth that some bras may lead to breast cancer.
  • Smoking: While tobacco is unhealthy for many reasons, there is no connection between the use of tobacco and breast cancer.
  • Abortion or miscarriage: Women who have undergone abortion or experienced miscarriage are not at a higher risk for breast cancer.
  • Breast implants: Several studies have found that breast implants do not increase breast cancer risk.

Early detection is the key to surviving breast cancer. There are steps that you can take right now to protect your health:

  • Breast self-exam: Women age 20 or older should perform breast self-examination every month. If you feel a lump or swelling in the breast or underarm area, notice skin irritation or dimpling, experience nipple pain or a discharge other than breast milk, you should see your doctor right away. Remember, most of these breast changes are not cancer, but a health-care professional can make that determination.
  • Professional screening: Women from 20 to 39 should have a clinical breast examination by a health professional every three years. After age 40, women should have a breast exam and mammogram by a health professional every year.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.