By debunking some common myths about breast cancer, two oncologists from the US hope to give women some simple key messages to help them understand and manage their risk of breast cancer.

Drs Mahmoud Charif and Neetu Radhakrishnan, both medical oncologists at the University of Cincinnati (UC) Health in Ohio, and assistant professors at the university’s College of Medicine, published their list of myths and tips for reducing breast cancer risk in a press release on 20 January.

Charif says this is a myth because most women who develop breast cancer have neither a family history of the disease nor a genetic mutation linked to breast cancer (for instance mutations in the tumor suppressor genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 have been linked to hereditary breast cancer).

He says breast cancer risk is affected by a combination of lifestyle choices and environmental exposure and that:

“Statistics tell us that one in eight women will develop breast cancer during her lifetime – and that risk goes up significantly with age and genetic predisposition.”

He said the good news is there are lots things women can do to reduce their risk, including avoiding alcohol, eating a healthy diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, taking regular exercise and keeping to a healthy weight.

Charif says no scientific studies have linked red meat or any other specific foods to increased risk of breast cancer but they have shown a link between alcohol consumption, even in moderation, and breast cancer.

He tells his patients to avoid alcohol completely.

“Consuming one drink per day increases the average woman’s breast risk by approximately 10 per cent,” says Charif.

“Alcohol intake also has been linked to several other cancers, including oral, throat, esophagus and liver,” he adds.

Radhakrishnan’s advice is to eat a “healthful, balanced diet”, and if you change your diet radically, even by starting to take supplements or multivitamins, talk to your doctor.

“When it comes to soy specifically, since no study has shown harm, it is probably safe for a healthy woman to consume soy in amounts common to Asian diets,” he says.

This is a myth because there can be several other reasons why a woman may have a pain or lump in her breast.

Breast tissue is changing all the time because of varying hormone levels, especially during menstruation or breastfeeding.

Lumps can be benign growths of tissue, but if you feel one you should have it checked by a medical professional immediately, say Charif and Radhakrishnan.

Charif and Radhakrishnan say this is a myth because studies show that combination HRT (using estrogen and progesterone), which many women took for relief of menopause symptoms in the 1990s, does in fact increase the risk of breast cancer.

Charif says women with menopausal symptoms should avoid combination HRT altogether if possible.

HRT that uses only one hormone, estrogen, is thought slightly to increase breast cancer risk if used for no more than five years.

He explains that breast cancer risk is linked with lifetime exposure to the female hormone estrogen, and that’s why women who have had children or breastfed for an extended period are believed to be at slightly lower risk of breast cancer because these activities reduce ovulation and thereby lessen lifetime exposure to estrogen.

Radhakrishnan agrees and adds that:

“Early menstruation and late menopause are also associated with an increased risk for breast cancer for the same reason.”

This is a myth because even moderate amounts of exercise, such as brisk walking three or four times a week, can make a difference to a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, as well as improving her cardiovascular health, say Charif and Radhakrishnan.

They say the important thing is to “keep moving”.

Studies shows that regular exercise can help reduce women’s risk of breast cancer by between 20 and 50 per cent, they stress.

Source: University of Cincinnati (news release 20 Jan 2011).

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD