Breast Cancer Facts: 5 Common Misconceptions

Women at a Breast Cancer Run/Walk
October 16, 2013 (Updated: October 15, 2018)
Lily Moran

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which means we are awash in products bearing pink ribbons. Even the NFL has gotten into the act with football players and coaches wearing pink. This annual event is intended to raise public awareness of breast cancer and provide some much-needed funding for research.

On the other hand, I can tell you that breast cancer awareness is already very high. Too many women live in the shadow of this disease, including millions who are perfectly healthy yet still terrified that one day they will hear the words, “You have breast cancer.”

I don’t blame women for being concerned. Breast cancer is increasingly common, with experts estimating that one in every eight women will be diagnosed with the disease at some point.

What I worry about are the misconceptions that are floating around, doing a great deal of harm. One of the most disconcerting myths made it into the news recently, when actress Angelina Jolie revealed that – due to results of genetic testing – she had had a preventive double mastectomy. In other words, she did not have breast cancer. But since her genetic tests revealed that it might happen one day, she decided to skip the diagnosis and go straight to the “remedy.”

Ms. Jolie might have had personal reasons for her decision, since she had watched her mother and aunt struggle with – and ultimately lose – battles with cancer. But, since this issue has gone public, I believe it’s important for those of us with real-world experience in this area to weigh in. And my take on it is that this is not something I would ever encourage someone to do.

Here are five areas that are often misunderstood or ignored when it comes to cancer. I encourage everyone – women and men alike – to take these factors seriously.

1) Don’t Blame Your Genes

If you have a genetic predisposition to cancer – something that’s relatively easy to determine with genetic testing – your risk of cancer may be elevated. But it’s important to understand how statistics like this work before using faulty reasoning to jump to conclusions. So let’s do some simple math.

For example, let’s say the average person has a 10 percent chance of developing cancer. If this individual has genetic testing done, she may learn that her risk of cancer is 40 percent higher than the average individual. Most people would hear that and panic, thinking that it means a 50 percent risk (the original 10 percent added to the 40 percent). That’s a big mistake, but a very common one, so don’t blame yourself for getting it wrong. Most people haven’t taken classes in statistics, so it’s only natural to assume that the figures would be added together.

However, here is the correct way to calculate her odds – the genetic component increases her original 10 percent risk by just 4 points (40% of 10 = 4). Now we’re talking about a 14 percent risk, which is not nearly as frightening as 50 percent.

Before moving on, I want to make two more points. Experts estimate that only about 5 percent of all cancer cases are due to genetics. To clarify, that means 95 percent of all cancers are due to lifestyle or environmental factors. So before spending hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars on genetic testing, please understand that you, not your genes, primarily control the development of this disease.

As the emerging science of epigenetics is proving, genes do not have absolute authority in determining our destiny, and there are many ways to manipulate them to improve your health, starting with a healthy lifestyle.

Furthermore, removing a body part does not mean you will be cancer free forever after. The disease can still occur in other areas of the body. And with breast cancer, there’s even a slight chance that some of the residual breast tissue that’s left behind could contain cancer cells. So, there’s no guarantee that you’ll never develop breast cancer or another form of the disease. Plus, there are literally hundreds of other types of cancer, so the disease can still occur in other areas of the body.

A better solution: Live a healthy lifestyle and follow my recommendations for diet, exercise, sleep, stress management, and nutritional supplements.

2) Choose screenings carefully

We are repeatedly told that, when it comes to breast cancer, mammograms are the screening method of choice and that having an annual mammogram can save your life. The truth is far different. Mammograms can actually be harmful to your health. They expose delicate breast tissue to a huge dose of ionizing radiation, which is known to cause cancer, while missing some 20 percent of pathologies. In addition, the pressure involved in the mammogram process can spread cancerous cells to new regions of the breast, something that is also true of biopsies. Yet millions of women dutifully have yearly mammograms without even considering the options. And some even make the mistake of assuming that mammograms prevent cancer. That is a complete falsehood.

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Finally, although mammograms are sold as life-saving procedures, studies have repeatedly shown that women who avoid mammograms and use self-examination instead have nearly identical results – and survival rates! – as those who have annual mammograms. This is why I recommend self-examination to everyone as a first step, followed by thermography as a second step.

Thermography simply measures infrared heat produced by your body and converts this information into images that a doctor can use for diagnosis. Thermography does not require breast compression or radiation, so it eliminates two of the most harmful aspects of mammograms. Here’s another reason why I prefer thermography: It can detect precancerous changes in breast tissue as much as ten years before other screening methods.

Although thermography is an excellent screening tool, you don’t have to stop there. There exists a menu of breast cancer screening options, including comprehensive genetic testing that goes beyond the BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast cancer genes. There are also tests for toxic estrogen, a cancer profile (a blood test that looks for changes at the molecular level to spot problems early in their development), and a cancer cascade test to identify details about any malignancy that may be found.

3) Stay informed

Many of our readers are well-educated, intelligent women. But, too often, I find that they believe the myths mentioned above, or they fail to stay current on treatment options and recommendations because they’d rather just not deal with the issue of breast cancer. As a result, they miss crucial information.

Case in point: In 2009, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) reviewed research and changed their recommendation from annual mammograms to once every two years for women between the ages of 50 and 74. So, if you still choose to go with a mammogram, at least you’ll be getting less radiation – but only if you know about this new recommendation.

I realize breast cancer is a topic that we all would like to avoid, but it is very important to stay current with news in the field. That doesn’t mean subscribing to medical journals. But advances are occurring continually, and, if your head is stuck in the sand, you won’t know that there could be better choices for prevention and treatment available. Check back here often for new developments, so your choices aren’t limited by outdated information.

4) Arm your immune system

Cancer cells are quite common in the body, but your immune system is designed to remove these damaged cells before they can multiply out of control and spread to other areas. If your immune system is overwhelmed with bad food and beverage choices, toxins, and a sedentary lifestyle, it might not be up to the task of tracking down and eliminating rogue cancer cells.

You can help your immune system win this battle by keeping it strong. Probiotics, the friendly bacteria that set up shop in the intestinal tract, are your body’s first responders when it comes to identifying toxins and damaged cells and showing them the door. Taking advantage of various methods of detoxification helps, too.

And, of course, don’t overlook the importance of getting five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is loaded with foods that interfere with proper immune functions, things like sugar, refined flour, pesticides, preservatives, antibiotics, and hormones. On the other hand, organic fruits and veggies supply health-enhancing antioxidants and plenty of other substances that Mother Nature designed to keep us well. On days when it’s difficult to get the necessary nutrients from food, don’t forget that a greens supplement can help make up the nutrition gap.

5) Combat inflammation

When your body is hurt, it has the capacity to heal. The red, warm, swollen area surrounding a simple wound is inflammation created by your body to prevent potentially dangerous microorganisms or other enemies from gaining a foothold. The healing process is a miraculous, life-saving event. But it can go wrong.

Uncontrolled, systemic inflammation is all too common these days. When damage to the body exceeds its ability to heal, the result is painful, inflammatory chronic conditions, such as arthritis, heart disease, allergies, and even cancer. The typical physician recommends non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin or acetaminophen to relieve the pain. But pain is a symptom, so as soon as the drugs wear off, it returns. You need to treat the cause – inflammation – but pain-relieving medication doesn’t do that.

For better pain relief and less inflammation, which translates into a reduced risk of cancer, I recommend taking advantage of natural substances, such as green tea, ginger, and curcumin. An extract of the spice turmeric, curcumin, is a super star in this area, with hundreds of studies demonstrating how powerful it is at quelling inflammation and inhibiting growth of cancer cells. In fact, research has shown that curcumin slows or stops the growth of breast cancer, as well as cancer of the stomach, ovaries, colon, liver, and brain. To my knowledge, nothing else performs as well as curcumin, and that includes synthetic substances used in chemotherapy that were developed specifically to kill cancer cells.

I understand that cancer is a concern for most people, and with good reason. But if worrying about the disease is keeping you up at night, please be aware that there are steps you can take, starting right now, to reduce your risk – and that applies to most forms of the disease, not just breast cancer. Review my advice for healthy living in earlier newsletters, and I think you’ll discover that the recommendations are not as challenging or as difficult as they might seem.

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