Myths and frequently asked questions about breast cancer

How much do you really know about breast cancer? Answer these True or False questions and then scroll to the bottom to find out the answers

  1.  Men can get breast cancer as well as women?
  2. The only way breast cancer presents itself is as a lump in the breast?
  3. Most breast lumps found are cancerous?
  4. Trauma to the breast can cause breast cancer?
  5. Mammographic screening is available freely through Breastscreen WA from the age of 40?
  6. The risk of developing breast cancer can be reduced?
  7. The only family history that is relevant to breast cancer is from the mother’s side?

What do I do if I find a lump?

In young women, breasts can feel much lumpier around the time of the menstrual cycle. If a lump persists after one menstrual cycle, contact your doctor.

In older women, who have gone through the menopause, contact your doctor as soon as possible.

All breasts have areas of lumpiness that fluctuate with the menstrual cycle, however if lumps are irregular, unchanging or slowly enlarging or new you should contact your doctor.

Are most breast lumps found to be cancerous?

Nearly 80% of breast lumps are benign (not cancerous). Lumpy breasts are very common and they can change with different times of the menstrual cycle. Any lump that is new or unusual should be checked by a doctor.

When I’m checking my breasts, am I looking for lumps?

A lump in the breast is only one change that may indicate breast cancer. All women regardless of age are encouraged to be breast aware. Click here to find out how.

The changes you should look for include;

  • A lump or lumpiness
  • An area that feels different to the rest of the breast
  • An area of thickening
  • Changes to the skin such as dimpling, puckering or redness
  • Nipple discharge or bleeding from the nipple
  • Nipple itchiness, scaly skin or ulcers around the nipple
  • New nipple inversion
  • New and persistent pain
  • If you notice any of the above changes please consult your GP or health professional as soon as possible.

How often should I go to my GP for a checkup?

Once a year, along with your pap smear. If anything changes in between visits do not hesitate to contact your GP.

Why have a mammogram?

It is important for all women aged 40 and over to have a free screening mammogram every two years. Having a mammogram can save your life.

  • A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast.
  • Mammograms can detect up to 90% of breast cancers.
  • Mammograms can detect a lump as small as a grain of rice.
  • BreastScreen WA offer free screening mammograms to anyone aged 40 and over. Clinics are available in locations around the Perth metropolitan area. For women living in rural and remote areas the BreastScreen WA mobile unit visits regional towns every two years.
  • To make an appointment for a free mammogram call BreastScreen WA on 13 20 50 or visit www.breastscreen.health.wa.gov.au.
  • For more information about breast cancer screening call 9323 6799 or 1800 800 033.

Should women under 40 have a mammogram?

There is no evidence that regular screening by mammography for women under 40 is beneficial, but like all women, those under 50 should be breast aware and see their doctor without delay if any changes are noticed.

Whilst women aged from 50 to 69 are the target group for regular mammograms, women aged 40–49 years are eligible for free two-yearly screening mammograms through the BreastScreen Australia Program. Women over 69 should still attend their two yearly mammogram - the chance of developing breast cancer increases with age. Some women aged over 70 wrongly believe that they are no longer at risk and stop attending. Women in this age group will no longer receive invitations from BreastScreen WA but will instead have to call 13 20 50 and make an appointment.

Mammographic screening is not recommended for women younger than 40 years of age as their breast tissue is too dense to detect breast changes accurately using this method. If a woman in this age group is concerned about breast changes, a doctor will probably arrange an Ultrasound. A referral to a medical imaging service is needed for this. A GP can provide this referral.

MRI - In recent local studies, breast Magnetic Resonance Imagery (MRI) has been shown to be an effective tool for use in patients at high risk of developing breast cancer. The Federal Government recently announced that it would include this examination in their Medicare rebate scheme for these patients. A referral from a specialist to a Medicare eligible MRI unit is needed for this. Talk to your GP for more information about this.

How often should they be done?

Every one to two years.

High risk women with a strong family history need to be referred to a high risk screening clinic by their GP.

Are mammograms painful?

Women with sensitive breasts should schedule their mammograms a week after their menstrual cycle as mammography does compress the breasts and can sometimes cause slight discomfort for a very brief period of time.

Why would I need an ultrasound?

Ultrasound is a complementary examination to mammogram not an alternative. A GP can refer to an imaging service for this, but it is often done at the discretion of the radiologist when further information is sought about the appearance of breast tissue on mammogram. It is helpful in delineating cysts (fluid collections) from solid lumps. A very small number of cancers are identified only on ultrasound.

Does breast cancer affect young women too?

A woman can develop breast cancer at any age. The risk of developing breast cancer does increase with age, but breast cancer can occur at a young age too.

Can men get breast cancer?

As men have breast tissue, men can also develop breast cancer. However, male breast cancer accounts for less than one per cent of all breast cancer diagnosed. Each year approximately 105 men are diagnosed with breast cancer. Both men and women have breast tissue – men just have less of it.

Can using antiperspirants and deodorants increase the likelihood of developing breast cancer?

There is no evidence to suggest that using antiperspirants and deodorants can increase the risks of developing breast cancer.

There’s no family history of breast cancer, can I still get it?

Every woman has some risk of developing breast cancer. 9 out of 10 women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history. However, the more relatives you have with breast cancer, the higher your risk is of developing it.

Which family history is more relevant to breast cancer, the mother’s or father’s side?

Breast cancer occurs for many reasons, none of which we fully understand. Family history is a minor factor in the incidence of breast cancer, accounting for about 5 – 10% of cases. Both your mother's and father's family history are considered when assessing your personal risk of developing breast cancer. Breast cancer genes can be inherited from either side of the family.

Is there any connection between ovarian cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer?

The genetic mutation known as the BRCA gene can be inherited from either parent. This mutation increases the risk of ovarian, breast and prostate cancers. For more information on familial risks click here.

Can trauma to the breast cause breast cancer?

There is no evidence to prove that breast cancer is caused by trauma to the breast. Sometimes trauma to the breast can result in the detection of a breast cancer, but this is because the breast is being examined more closely than usual.

Does stress have an impact on breast cancer?

A number of studies looking into the link between stress and the incidence or recurrence of breast cancer have been undertaken in particular since 1999. None of these studies has been able to identify a link with stress and breast cancer.

Can terminating a pregnancy (induced abortion) increase the risk of breast cancer?

There is no evidence to prove that having an abortion causes breast cancer. Such a claim is not supported by scientific evidence and only serves to cause unnecessary distress to women.

Is it always necessary to remove the breast if you are diagnosed with breast cancer?

No, there are many different types of breast cancer, and treatment options are different depending on a range of factors, such as the type of breast cancer, the size and position of the tumour, etc.

Does taking hormone replacement therapy increase the risk of being affected by breast cancer?

There have been a number of studies that suggest hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may increase the risk of developing breast cancer. If commencing HRT, it is important to discuss any queries you have with your GP or health professional.

How can I reduce the risk of developing breast cancer?

Although the cause of breast cancer is unknown, one can help prevent breast cancer developing through the following:

  • Physical activity
  • Maintaining ideal body weight
  • Eating healthily
  • Limiting alcohol consumption to no more than two standard drinks per day

Myths about breast cancer

Answers from the top of the page

  1. True – As men have breast tissue they can also develop breast cancer, however this accounts for less that 1% in Australia of all breast cancers.
  2. False – A lump is only one change that may indicate breast cancer. Other changes can be an area of thickening, changes to the skin such as dimpling, puckering or redness, nipple discharge, itchiness or inversion or persistent pain.
  3. False – Nearly 90% or breast lumps are non-malignant. Breast lumps are common and can change with your menstrual cycle. However if you detect a lump get it checked by your GP.
  4. False – There is no evidence that trauma causes breast cancer. Sometimes it can result in detection, but this is due to the breast being examined more closely than normal.
  5. True – Women are invited from the age of 50 but you can attend from 40 onwards. Mammograms are difficult to interpret in younger women as breast tissue is denser. If you have a symptom, you need to be assessed by your GP.
  6. True – Although the cause is unknown, you can help prevent it through increased physical activity, maintaining an ideal body weight, eating healthily, drinking less alcohol and ceasing smoking.
  7. False – Family history from both your mother and fathers side is important in assessing your risk. It can be inherited from either side. 

There are many myths about breast cancer and sometimes it is hard to know what to believe and what to ignore. Click here for more information.

If you have any other questions, please email info@breastcancer.org.au or call 9324 3703.