Breast Cancer Awareness Month: 7 of the most common misconceptions, according to a doctor

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Lauren Geall
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Despite being the most common form of cancer in the UK, many of us know very little about breast cancer and what it looks like. Here, a doctor unpicks some of the most common misconceptions about the disease.

October marks the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month – a month dedicated to raising awareness of the disease and supporting those living with and affected by it.

But despite the fact that Breast Cancer Awareness Month happens every year – and that breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK – many of us are still unclear about what breast cancer actually looks like and what we need to do to keep ourselves safe. And according to new research, that confusion is manifesting in a surge in trips to Dr Google.  

The study, carried out by Bupa UK Insurance, found that there’s been a surge in searches related to breast cancer over the last 12 months, with a 5,000% increase for ‘what does breast cancer pain feel like’ and ‘early signs of breast cancer,’ and a 350% surge for ‘signs of breast cancer in women’.

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It also found that one in four women don’t check their breasts – and over half of 18-34-year-olds would be discouraged from seeking help for breast concerns due to fears that they’d be wasting the doctor’s time or because they feel embarrassed about their symptoms.  

That is, of course, a massive problem – especially when you consider that an estimated one in seven women will be affected by breast cancer in their lifetime, according to Breast Cancer UK. With early detection crucial in ensuring a good chance of recovery, it’s important that every single one of us knows how to check our breasts and when to visit the doctor. And that’s where this article comes in.

To mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2021, we asked Dr Petra Simic, medical director at Bupa, to talk us through seven of the most common misconceptions about breast cancer. Here’s what she had to say. 

Myth 1: Lumps in your breast are always cancerous 

“If you notice a lump in your breast, it’s very important to get this checked by your doctor; a lump or change to the feel or appearance of your breasts should never be ignored,” Dr Simic explains. “However, not all lumps are cancer.

“It can be difficult opening up about your breast health; perhaps you’re worried about wasting your doctor’s time, or you may be nervous or embarrassed to tell them about how you’re feeling.”

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She continues: “However, it’s always best to reach out to your doctor for anything unusual. Your healthcare professional will want to hear about any changes you are concerned about.”

Myth 2: You should check your breasts on the same day of every month

“You should check your breasts whenever it’s convenient for you,” Dr Simic says. “It’s important to get to know what is normal for you to help notice any changes. A good time to check your breasts can be when you’re in the shower or bath. 

“You should speak to your GP about any changes to how your breasts feel or look.”

A woman checking her breasts for breast cancer
Checking your breasts regularly is important because it allows you to work out what's normal for you.

Myth 3: If you check your breasts regularly, you don’t need a mammogram

“It’s important that you check your breasts regularly and attend your female health appointments,” Dr Simic explains. “A mammogram is a type of X-ray that can help find breast cancer at an early stage when treatment is most successful.

“Anyone registered with a GP as female will be invited for NHS breast screening every three years between the ages of 50 and 71. Cancers found during a mammogram may have been too small to see or be difficult to feel, meaning you may not have noticed a change in appearance or touch.”

Myth 4: Wearing a bra can cause cancer

“There is no evidence that wearing a bra causes breast cancer,” Dr Simic says. “The theory behind this misconception focuses on wearing an underwired bra, and a theory that the wiring restricts the flow of lymph fluid out of the breast. There is no scientific evidence to support this theory.”

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She continues: “However, it is important that you wear a correctly fitting bra as not wearing the right-sized or supportive bra can lead to breast pain.”

Myth 5: Breast cancer is only a problem that affects women

“This isn’t true: while 55,000 women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, 350 men are diagnosed each year too,” Dr Simic says.

“Although this is a much smaller number in comparison to women, it’s still important for men to report any changes to their doctor.

“Having a close male family member (brother or father) with a history of breast cancer can mean you have a higher risk of having breast cancer, so make sure this information is shared with family members, or any medical professional if you are having breast issues.”

A breast cancer awareness ribbon
People of all genders and sexes can get breast cancer.

Myth 6: You don’t need to attend screening appointments or health check-ups if you don’t have symptoms

“Female health checks and cancer screening across all ages are there to detect any early signs of abnormalities and cancer,” Dr Simic explains. “It’s important to attend all your female health checks and to know how to identify important changes in your own body.

“Even if you’re showing no unusual symptoms, you should attend your checks and screening appointments as these can detect abnormalities before you start showing any symptoms. 

“Early detection is key to effectively treating cancers so attending all appointments – even if you’re feeling well – is vital.”

Myth 7: If you’re due a routine screening mammogram, you don’t need to see a doctor if you find a lump

“Not all breast cancers are apparent on a mammogram,” Dr Simic explains. “If you’ve found a breast abnormality you need to see your doctor, as you may need other tests in addition to a mammogram to rule out breast cancer.”

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She continues: “Mammograms are designed for women without any symptoms and will pick up around four in five breast cancers. They aren’t 100% accurate in showing if a person has breast cancer, so it shouldn’t replace seeing your GP if you have new symptoms.

“If you’ve had a normal mammogram and subsequently find a lump or a change, it’s important you also see your GP just as urgently, as you may need an ultrasound scan or other tests to rule out breast cancer.”

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.

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