Truth & Consequences
Understanding and deciphering all the information about the causes, detection and
treatment of this deadly disease can seem as daunting as dealing with cancer itself.
Here we help you navigate through the murky waters of beliefs about breast
cancer to discover some truths.
It’s difficult to write a story on breast cancer and make it sound, well, uplifting. Despite decades of research, increased public awareness that has led to earlier detection and billions of dollars spent on surgical procedures and drug-based treatments, one in eight American women will develop the disease during her lifetime. Nearly 270,000 new cases of breast cancer are expected to occur among women this year, and 40,410 will die from the disease. Many more will endure surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. If it hasn’t happened already, breast cancer is almost certain to affect you or someone you know.
Fortunately, the five-year survival rate for localized breast cancer (meaning it is contained in the breast) is 98%. If the cancer has spread regionally (meaning it spreads to the lymph nodes), five-year survival rates drop to 80%. If breast cancer metastasizes in distant areas, survival falls to just 26%. Clearly, the key to avoiding or overcoming breast cancer is information and early detection.
But with so much misinformation circulating in the media, it’s hard to know the facts.
Energy Times decided to investigate the issues surrounding some of the commonly held beliefs about breast cancer—causes, detection and treatments—and feel we’ve discovered whether these beliefs are true or not. We sincerely hope they are helpful.
Belief: Finding a lump in your breast means you have breast cancer.
Truth: The majority of breast lumps are not cancerous. Most lumps are fibrous, scar-like tissue and fluid-filled sacs called cysts. These “fibrocystic changes” may cause breast swelling and pain or may be symptom-free. Benign tumors such as fibroadenomas and papillomas are noncancerous, self-contained growths that will not spread outside of the breast. Fear often prevents women from seeking health care, yet eight out of 10 breast lumps are benign. Since early detection has been well-established as one of the most important defenses against breast cancer, monthly self-exams and regularly scheduled mammograms are vital.
Belief: Mammograms cause cancer.
Truth: A mammogram is a safe procedure that uses extremely low levels of radiation to create detailed images of the breast, yet rumors persist that this essential test is unsafe. The Mammography Quality Standards Act, passed by Congress, mandates rigorous guidelines for X-ray safety using the lowest dose of radiation possible. Mammography can find cancers several years before a lump is detectable—when it is easiest to treat—making mammograms the best way to detect early breast cancer. To find out where to get a mammogram in your community, contact the American Cancer Society at 1-800-ACS-2345.
Belief: Having a family history of breast cancer means you will get it, too.
Truth: While women with a mother, daughter, sister or grandmother who had breast cancer are in a higher risk group, most women who develop breast cancer have no family history of the disease. Of the 211,240 cases of invasive breast cancer and 58,490 cases of in situ (early stage) breast cancer expected to occur among women in 2005, the American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 20% will have a sister or mother with the disease. Another 5% will carry the inherited susceptibility genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2.
A woman with a family history of breast cancer should talk to her health practitioner about the benefits of starting mammography screening earlier, having more frequent exams and including additional tests such as breast ultrasound and MRI. All women—not just those at increased risk—should know how their breasts normally feel, perform monthly breast self-exams and promptly report any breast changes to their health care provider.
Belief: Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) increases breast cancer risk.
Truth: After years of believing that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was safe for relieving symptoms such as hot flashes in post-menopausal women, several large studies determined that HRT increases the risk of developing and dying of breast cancer. “Up until three years ago, we encouraged women to take HRT,” explains Michael Theodorakis, MD, FACP, an associate at North Shore Hematology/Oncology Associates in East Setauket, New York, and chairman of oncology at St. Catherine’s of Sienna Medical Center in Smithtown, New York. “They looked better, felt better and had more confidence. But suddenly we found out that they also have a high risk of developing breast cancer.” According to the Women’s Health Initiative, the treatment also appears to reduce the effectiveness of mammography, increasing the likelihood that cancer would be found at a more advanced stage.
Belief: Poor nutrition, obesity and lack of exercise don’t really affect the development of breast cancer.
Truth: Women who are both overweight and consume too many caloric, chemical-ridden foods can develop various cancers, including breast cancer. High consumption of preserved red meat and alcoholic beverages increase breast cancer risk, while cancer-inhibiting fruits and vegetables may keep the oncologist at bay. As for physical activity, the Women’s Health Initiative suggests that as little as 1.25 to 2.5 hours per week of brisk walking reduces a woman’s breast cancer risk by 18%.
Belief: Soy foods can reduce breast cancer risk.
Truth: Soybeans and soy-derived foods contain isoflavonoids, phytochemicals that appear to protect against hormone-dependent cancers, including breast cancer. Cases of breast cancer are substantially lower in Asian countries, where women consume greater amounts of soy foods. A National Cancer Institute study revealed that isoflavonoids in the urine of women with breast cancer are low, suggesting that a high intake of soy food may reduce breast cancer risk.
Belief: There is no connection between antibiotic use and breast cancer.
Truth: Over the past decade, overuse of antibiotics has become a serious problem in America. A large-scale study of more than 10,000 women concluded that the more antibiotics a woman used, the higher her risk of breast cancer. Women who had 25 prescriptions or more over an average period of 17 years had more than twice the chance of contracting breast cancer as women who had not taken antibiotics. The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that even women who took as little as one prescription over the same time period were 1.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with the disease.
What is the connection between antibiotics and breast cancer? It may be linked to the harmful impact on intestinal bacteria, which breaks down foods that might prevent cancer. Some researchers believe that antibiotics negatively impact the body’s immune response, encouraging the development of cancer. Antibiotics are also routinely fed to animals used for food and sprayed on fruit trees to combat plant disease. To lower risk, a woman should readjust her diet to consume more organically grown food.
Belief: Oral contraceptives decrease cancer risk.
Truth: While studies show that oral contraceptive use reduces the risk of ovarian cancer, the effect is the opposite regarding breast cancer. Oral contraceptives contain synthetic versions of estrogen and progesterone, two naturally occurring female hormones. Breast cancer is linked to natural hormones, and since oral contraceptives manipulate these hormones, women who use them run an elevated risk, especially 20- to 34-year-old women (according to the National Cancer Institute). The good news is that breast cancer risk declines for women over age 35 and returns to normal levels after 10 years of not taking oral contraceptives.
Belief: Chemotherapy for breast cancer has no effect on fertility.
Truth: Depending on the drugs used and the age of the patient, chemotherapy, or treatment with anti-cancer drugs, can cause changes that result in either permanent or temporary loss in the ability to have children. Since chemotherapy damages the ovaries, women’s menstrual periods may stop and they may experience hot flashes and vaginal dryness, symptoms akin to an early menopause. “With proper planning, there are different ways to preserve fertility and these issues should be discussed with an endocrinologist referred by your physician,” says Linda Klein, MD, an Oregon-based oncologist. According to the American Journal of Oncology Review, half of the women aged 40 years or younger undergoing chemotherapy felt that their fertility concerns had not been addressed adequately.
Belief: Breast-feeding and pregnancy lower breast cancer risk.
Truth: Breast-feeding is not only healthier for babies, but mommies who breast-feed reap the benefits of reduced breast cancer risk. This may be because both pregnancy and breast-feeding reduce a woman’s number of total lifetime menstrual cycles, which correlates with a reduction of breast cancer found among women who start menstruation later and/or experience early menopause.
Belief: Attitude has no real effect on breast cancer treatment.
Truth: “Messenger” molecules called neuropeptides communicate our thoughts, emotions and beliefs to every cell, directly influencing immune and hormone function. Just as a negative attitude can diminish immunity and damage the powerful natural killer (NK) cells that wage war on cancer, a positive outlook can produce measurable levels of a neuropeptide identical to interleukin-2, a potent anti-cancer drug. A positive-thinking patient is also more likely to take an active role in their treatment. “Breast cancer patients who are positive thinking tolerate treatment far better and have fewer side effects,” says Michael Theodorakis, MD, FACP. “These are the people who watch what they eat, they exercise and, in the long run, they do better. This group has a survival advantage.”
Belief: Women with breast implants are at increased risk of developing breast cancer.
Truth: Surprisingly, long-term studies associated with silicone breast implants show that the risk of developing breast cancer is less likely among women with implants compared to women without implants. In some studies, the size of the reduced risk was as much as 50% to 60%. Researchers did note a shift toward later detection of breast cancers among women with implants, though there was no significant difference in breast cancer mortality between the two groups.
Belief: Underwire bras cause breast cancer.
Truth: Stories maintaining that underwire bras compact the lymphatic system of the breast and cause breast cancer began circulating following the publication of a book entitled Dressed to Kill (Avery). But contrary to the assertions made by authors Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer, a husband-and-wife team of medical anthropologists, no study has conclusively linked underwire bras to breast cancer.
Belief: Antiperspirants and deodorants can cause breast cancer.
Truth: For many years, articles in the media have warned that use of underarm antiperspirants and deodorants may be related to breast cancer development. Researchers at the National Cancer Institute have not conclusively linked the use of these products with breast cancer, but conflicting studies indicate there may be an association. Women who began shaving their underarms and applying deodorants or antiperspirants before 16 years of age were diagnosed with breast cancer at an earlier age then those who began these hygiene habits later, according to a report in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention. Numerous other investigations focus on preservatives called parabens, widely used in antiperspirants and deodorants, and suggest that parabens mimic the activity of estrogen within the body and promote the growth of breast cancer cells. Paraben-free deodorants and antiperspirants are available at natural food stores.
Belief: Dyeing one’s hair increases the likelihood of developing breast cancer.
Truth: Many natural health care authorities, including Andrew Weil, MD, argue against using any hair colors or dyes, since hair dyes are applied directly to the scalp where the blood supply is especially rich and may carry carcinogenic components directly into the blood stream. Although most studies do not find a link between breast cancer and permanent hair dyes, the American Cancer Society found that those who used dark hair dyes for two decades or more had a four times greater risk of dying from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma. Ironically, an additional 17 studies found that hairstylists have a significantly higher risk of developing cancer than their customers.
Belief: Environmental toxins cause breast cancer.
Truth: Chemical compounds omnipresent in our food, water and air are now found in the cells of every living person. The accumulation of these chemicals in body tissues commonly leads to a variety of toxin-related illnesses. Multiple studies reveal estrogenic-responsive tumors and dozens of toxic chemicals in the tissues of breast cancer patients, including pesticides routinely sprayed on crops. Michael Theodorakis, MD, FACP, believes science is only beginning to make the connection between breast cancer and environmental toxins. “There are other chemicals and solvents that put women at risk, but we can’t seem to find the relationship with breast cancer. They’re out there, but we just haven’t found them yet.”
Patricia Macomb who, at 35, is currently undergoing treatment for three different types of breast cancer, believes her cancer was environmentally induced. “I grew up on Long Island, smack between three toxic locations—Brookhaven Laboratory, Grumman and the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant. I don’t question where my cancer came from.” (To learn about an ongoing study on breast cancer and the environment on Long Island, visit http://epi.grants.cancer.gov.)