The Most Common Breast Cancer Misconceptions (Debunked by Real Patients)

A “family history” can start with anyone.

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Despite the increased awareness of breast cancer and the ubiquity of the pink ribbon, many misconceptions about the disease, especially when it comes to breast cancer causes and risk factors, still exist. HealthiNation interviewed several patients and survivors of breast cancer to get their take on these common misconceptions.

Truth: Breast cancer isn’t primarily genetic.

Not having a family history of breast cancer does not mean you are in the clear. Only 10 percent of those diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history of it, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

“There was no family history,” says Doris, who was diagnosed at 37, 47, and 54. “I checked. I looked. I asked.”

Those who do have a history of breast cancer in their family are in a higher-risk group, however. This is especially true if it’s a first-degree relative like a mother, daughter, or sister.

“I’m the new family history,” says Nicole, diagnosed at age 36. “It starts with me.”

Truth: Breast cancer can strike at any age.

Two-thirds of women diagnosed with breast cancer are older than 55—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen to younger women.

“At 23, when I was diagnosed,” says Alyssa, “I had to plan a family and think about my future of having kids and being able to carry children when I didn’t think I’d have to think of that for a few years.”

Truth: Being in remission doesn’t mean you feel safe.

Experts still have not found a “cure” for cancer. When patients no longer have tumor growth, this is known as remission, which comes from the Latin word remiterre, meaning “send back.” Unfortunately for some women, the cancer can return, sometimes years later.

“I’m not sure that the fear of recurrence ever goes away,” says Sally, who was diagnosed at age 40. “Recurrence can happen at any time.”

Having a mastectomy, or a removal of the breast, decreases the chance of recurrence, according to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. However, a tumor in the other breast or another part of the body is possible, but this is considered a new cancer, not a recurrence.

“Even when I was told I was cancer-free,” says Alyssa, 24, “it didn’t feel all that reassuring.”

Truth: Pink ribbons are a start, but they’re not everything.

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM), founded in 1985, occurs every October in countries around the world. Initially, the aim was to promote mammograms as an effective tool to detect breast cancer early. Since then, efforts (and its popularity) have expanded. But how some breast cancer patients and survivors feel about breast cancer awareness is more nuanced.

“October does suck. It’s very commercialized,” says Nicole, diagnosed at age 36. “It’s not enough to just put a ribbon on your uniform as a football player or wear pink socks as a soccer player. It’s so much more than that.”

The nonprofit Pink Ribbon Inc. began in 2008 as an international platform to raise awareness and funding for breast cancer.

“You might think that breast cancer doesn’t need our support and fundraising and in research,” says Lisa, who was diagnosed at age 46, “but breast cancer still needs to be treated and still needs to have a cure. People don’t need to die of breast cancer.”

Truth: Hollywood doesn’t get breast cancer right.

As with many health conditions, breast cancer is not always accurately depicted in the movies and on TV. “The way to display a side effect from chemo in the movies usually involves throwing up,” says Sally, diagnosed at 40. “Many, many women go through breast cancer chemo without ever being nauseous.”

Truth: Many people find their own lumps.

Not all patients find their own tumors, but some do. “I was one of the few that found my own tumor,” says Theresa, diagnosed at 44. “It had already grown to the size of five centimeters. If I didn’t do my exams, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”

While many lumps are benign, according to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, you should see a doctor immediately if you find any lumps or changes in breast tissue.

“I had this gut feeling that there was something wrong and this was not just a cyst,” says Rosanna, diagnosed at age 32. “I remember even on vacation, I was sitting in a hotel room by myself and out loud said, ‘I have cancer.’”

Truth: Everyone’s cancer story is different.

“I think it’s important to remember that everybody’s treatment and everybody’s journey is completely different,” says Christina, who was diagnosed at age 42. “There is no cookie-cutter journey from me to the next person to the next person.”

A very special thanks to Susan G. Komen Greater New York City.