8 Common Breast Cancer Myths That Need To Be Cleared Up

It is perfectly fine if you don't feel all that well versed in the world of breast cancer, because there is a ton of information out there, and it seems like it's always changing. It's tough to parse all the research, tips, guidelines, and statistics to figure out exactly what it means for you and your body.

Luckily, there are a few easy ways to determine your breast cancer risk, so you can make informed decisions about your lifestyle and general health. One easy way to figure it out? Take an online quiz. Through a series of questions about your family history and lifestyle factors (like when you got your first period and how much alcohol you drink), you can get a better grasp on what you actually need to worry about when it comes to breast cancer.

For everything else, you should talk to your primary care physician or Ob/Gyn, says Sarah Cate, MD, a breast surgeon at Mount Sinai Downtown Chelsea Center in New York City. There is no such thing as a stupid question, and it's easy to get sucked into an online rabbit hole and come out convinced that you have cancer — and doctors understand that. "People come in with a lot of misconceptions, and there are some fairly common ones I hear over and over again," Dr. Cate says.

Given that there's an overload of information swirling, we asked three doctors who specialize in breast cancer to break down the biggest breast cancer myths and misconceptions that patients are mixed up about. Here's what you need to know, according to Dr. Cate, Deborah Lindner, MD, FACOG, a gynecologist and chief medical officer at Bright Pink, and Elisa Port, MD, FACS, Breast Cancer Research Foundation investigator and chief of breast surgery and director of the Dubin Breast Center, Mount Sinai Hospital.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For more stories about detecting, treating, or living with breast cancer, click here.

Myth: If you have breast pain, you have cancer.
Fact: Breast pain is completely normal.

According to Dr. Cate, many patients come to her complaining that they have breast pain, and therefore assume that they must have cancer. "First of all, pain is completely normal, and most of the time it's due to hormones," she says. There has never been any research that has shown that women who have breast pain get breast cancer, but if it doesn't seem to be related to your period, or lasts several days, tell your doctor, Dr. Cate says.

That goes for some lumps and bumps, too, Dr. Lindner says. "Some people have fibrocystic breasts, so they get these cystic lumps that come and go with their period," she says. If you notice a lump that doesn't go away with your period, talk to your doctor and get it checked out. It's important to understand what your breasts feel like on any given day, so that you can tell when something is wrong. If there is a change, speak up — just know that pain isn't always a red flag.

Myth: Mammograms cause cancer.
Fact: Mammograms help detect breast cancer.

A mammogram is a low-dose x-ray that helps to find changes in a person's breast tissue, and can help detect cancer very early on. At some point, people propagated a belief that mammograms actually cause cancer because of the radiation emitted, Dr. Lindner says. But the truth is that the dose of radiation that a person experiences from a mammogram is infinitesimal compared to the amount of radiation we can be exposed to on a daily basis in our natural surroundings.

Myth: Breast cancer is all genetic.
Fact: Cancer is an interaction between genetics and lifestyle.

Many people assume that breast cancer can only happen if you have a family history, but most breast cancers cannot solely be attributed to genetics or hereditary factors, Dr. Port says. In reality, about 15 to 20% of breast cancers happen in people who have a family history, but they might not be carrying the "breast cancer gene," Dr. Lindner says. Then, a small percentage of that hereditary group, about five to 10% of all breast cancers, are caused by the BRCA gene, she says. The rest happen sporadically in people with no family history or genetic predisposition.

But these statistics can be somewhat misleading, because they're looking at cancer as a whole, rather than a person's individual risk, Dr. Lindner says. For example, people with the BRCA gene have a 50-87% chance of getting breast cancer in their lifetime, which is way different than just saying that only 5-10% of people will get breast cancer due to the gene.

Bottom line: You can't assume that genetics tell the whole story about your breast cancer risk, because everyone is different. You can take a free quiz online to determine your risk, but it's also important to discuss any concerns with your doctor.

Myth: Antiperspirant causes breast cancer.
Fact: There's no evidence that antiperspirant causes breast cancer.

Ah, yes. People love to hate on antiperspirant because it contains aluminum, which has "estrogen-like" hormonal effects when applied on the skin, and because we put it on very close to our breasts. If you're in that camp, know that a 2006 study found no association between antiperspirant and breast cancer risk. Yet a 2017 survey from ReThink Breast Cancer found that 56% of teenagers believed that antiperspirant causes breast cancer, so this is clearly still causing confusion. "I kind of hoped we were past this, because it's been so clearly established that antiperspirant doesn't cause cancer," Dr. Lindner says. If you just prefer not using antiperspirant, that's fine, but don't give it up based on this unfounded fear.

Myth: Going bra-less will lower your cancer risk.
Fact: Underwire bras don't cause cancer.

Even Goop has covered whether or not wearing underwire bras caused cancer, so it's okay if you still aren't sure about this one. Some people believe that wearing an underwire bra blocks the drainage of lymph fluid under your armpits, therefore could contribute to breast cancer — but that's completely untrue. In some cases, people might experience pain from wearing an underwire bra, so doctors would suggest switching to something without it, Dr. Cate says. This is just to spare yourself the nuisance. "But it's like saying that wearing underwear increases your risk of gynecological cancers," Dr. Port says. (Of course, underwear doesn't cause cancer, either.)

Myth: Abortions cause breast cancer.
Fact: Abortion is not linked to an increase in breast cancer risk.

"It's been completely proven that abortions do not have any link and do not cause breast cancer," Dr. Lindner says. In 2003, the American Congress on Obstetrics and Gynecology and the National Cancer Institute reviewed research and found that there is no link between abortions and breast cancer. Further studies have confirmed that indeed there is no link between having an abortion and breast cancer.

Again: There is no link between having an abortion and breast cancer.

Myth: Men can't get breast cancer.
Fact: Some men can get breast cancer.

Male and female breasts are built similarly, but men have significantly less glandular and fatty tissue than women, Dr. Lindner says. While men can technically get breast cancer, their risk is significantly lower because there's much less tissue, she says. But men can also have the BRCA gene, which would put them at a higher risk.

Myth: There's not much you can do to lower your risk.
Fact: Lifestyle modifications can be hugely helpful.

Once you know what your breast cancer risk is, many people still feel like they're a "sitting duck, and you might get breast cancer or you might not, and there's nothing you can do about it," Dr. Lindner says. And it's scary to not feel like you have control. But luckily, there are some steps that you can take to minimize your risk, and for the majority of the population that includes making lifestyle changes, Dr. Lindner says. "The key things are reducing alcohol, exercising, having a normal BMI, and making sure you get enough vitamin D exposure." And talk to your doctor, because "not everybody should do the same thing, because not everyone is in the same risk group," she says.