Top Myths About Breast Cancer

Medically Reviewed By: Eric P. Winer, MD

There’s a broad range of news and information about breast cancer online, which creates opportunities to learn about prevention, treatment, cures and recurrence. But it also means you may run into confusing misinformation and oversimplifications.

Here are some popular misconceptions about breast cancer.

I can’t get breast cancer because it doesn’t run in my family. 

This is a very common myth. Although family history is very important in understanding one’s risk for breast cancer and although having multiple family members with breast cancer may elevate your risk, most breast cancer is not hereditary. We don’t know what causes most breast cancers and only a small proportion of breast cancer is explained by genes and/or family history. 

If I have a biopsy of my breast, it will spread cancer or give me cancer. 

This is fortunately not true. Biopsies are routine, safe, and do not increase the risk for a breast cancer to occur or spread.

Specifically, there is no evidence that a needle core biopsy causes cancer to spread. In fact, a needle core biopsy is the preferred method of diagnosing breast cancer or breast abnormalities that are felt or seen on imaging.

Exposure of the tumor to air during surgery can cause the cancer to spread

This is untrue. Surgery is actually the treatment we use with the goal of curing patients of their breast cancer (by removing it). Surgical procedures are routine, safe, and do not increase the risk for a breast cancer to occur or spread.

Having mammograms may cause breast cancer. 

Although there is a tiny amount of radiation needed to perform a mammogram, it is a small amount. It is extremely unlikely that any radiation from a mammogram would harm you.

I am too young to get breast cancer. 

Although aging is a risk factor for breast cancer and it is true that most breast cancers occur in older women, this statement is false. Young women can certainly get breast cancer and any mass, dimpling, or change in the appearance of a breast should warrant an evaluation to be sure that the changes are not related to cancer. [Learn more about the signs and symptoms of breast cancer.] If one has a lot of family members who had breast or ovarian cancer in particular, they should discuss their potential risks with their providers so that the timing of screening and possible genetic testing (to look for a hereditary pre-disposition) can be pursued. 

Men don’t get breast cancer.

More than 2,000 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the United States.

I can get breast cancer from wearing certain bras.

There is no evidence to say that wearing certain types of bras are harmful to you. You should wear what is most comfortable and supportive. 

You shouldn’t eat sugar or soy if you have breast cancer.

There is no evidence that if you stop eating sugar or soy, cancer will disappear. In fact, there are no data that consumption of sugar or soy has any clinical effect on breast cancer. If you want to keep soy and sugar in your diet, there are some choices that are better than others.

  • Sugar is a natural substance that feeds all of our body’s cells. Replacing processed sugary foods with fruits, which have sugar and cancer-fighting nutrients, is a smart choice.
  • Swap concentrated or highly processed forms of soy (such as soy protein isolate) for more healthful kinds (such as tofu, edamame, soy milk).

Deodorant/antiperspirant causes breast cancer.

Research has found no conclusive evidence of a connection between deodorant/antiperspirant and breast cancer.

A breast lump = cancer.

Some studies estimate as many as 80% of breast lumps are benign. Non-cancerous breast conditions, such as fibrosis and/or cysts, are very common.

If a lump is painful, it’s not cancer.

Between 2-7% if patients with a painful breast lump will be diagnosed with breast cancer. If you notice any changes to your breasts, you should talk with your doctor.

A mastectomy is the best therapy

Many women who have a choice in their treatment struggle to decide between conservative and more radical options. A large proportion of breast cancer experts believe that many women (not all) are often choosing to have more surgery than is necessary.

Seven large randomized prospective studies with 35 years of follow-up show that the survival between lumpectomy and radiation is the same as mastectomy.

About the Medical Reviewer

Eric P. Winer, MD

Dr. Winer received his MD from Yale University in 1983, and later completed training in internal medicine and served as chief resident at Yale-New Haven Hospital. He subsequently was a fellow in hematology-oncology at Duke University Medical Center, and from 1989 to 1997 served on the Duke faculty, where he became codirector of the multidisciplinary breast program. In 1997, he joined Brigham and Women's Hospital and Dana-Farber, where he is director of the Breast Oncology Center.