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Debunking Common Myths About Breast Cancer

Doctor reviews mammography results.

It’s estimated there’ll be nearly 269,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer this year. It’s not a disease most people care to think about until it happens to them. As a result, there are plenty of myths out there about breast cancer.

Dr. Katrina Birdwell, a breast surgeon with Texas Breast Specialists–Methodist Dallas Cancer Center, talked with KERA’s Sam Baker to correct some common misinformation.


You won't get breast cancer if you don't have a family history of it: "Absolutely incorrect. Of the people who are diagnosed with breast cancer, up to 90 percent actually have no family history. We've done a good job as a medical community getting the message out that if you have a strong family history you need to be diligent and we need to watch you closely. "

If you lead a healthy lifestyle, you don't have to worry about breast cancer:  "That's not true. The No. 1 risk factor for having breast cancer is being female. Men do acquire breast cancer, but its most commonly diagnosed in women. And the second risk factor is getting older."    

Can a person do anything to try and prevent breast cancer? "We obviously break down risk factors into modifiable and non- modifiable. Modifiable mean those things you can change:

  • A healthy weight. An elevated BMI elevates your production of estrogen.  That's true of both men and women. Fat cells generate estrogen that drives up your chance of breast cancer.
  • No tobacco products: Smoking, dipping, any of those kind of things increases your risk of breast cancer.
  • Reducing your extra estrogen: If people who take hormone supplementation, birth control pills or fertility treatments can minimize that as appropriate in your particular life for the choices you need to make otherwise.
  • A healthy activity level
  • Decreasing your alcohol consumption. For women that's about one alcoholic beverage a day on average. An average of two or three elevates your risk of breast cancer."

Can men get breast cancer? "Men do get breast cancer. It almost always presents as a palpable mass or a lump in their breast. They overall have so much less breast tissue they tend to detect it at an early stage."

Mastectomy is the only answer: "To almost every patient who walks into my office with a new breast cancer diagnosis, I say here are your options:

  • A lumpectomy followed by radiation
  • A mastectomy
  • Or a mastectomy followed by reconstruction.

And then we have to talk about which is right for you. In most cases, we can avoid mastectomy."
What’s most important to know: "I think it is exceedingly hopeful time. We have made huge strides. The overall survival for breast cancer has increased amazingly and the cure rate has increased amazingly in last 20 to 30 years because of improved screening improved technology improved treatments. We do less surgery, less radiation, we give it less chemotherapy now than we did 10 or 15 years ago and patients do better and we're going to continue to push that envelope forward. So I'm very hopeful that we'll continue to make breast cancer a very survivable disease."


About Breast Cancer

Common Cancer Myths and Misconceptions

American Cancer Society: Breast Cancer

How Is Breast Cancer Treated?

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.