One in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her life. In fact, other than skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer amongst women in the country. Unfortunately, the two most significant risks for developing breast cancer are factors that cannot be controlled: gender and age. However, in recent years, many studies have been published suggesting other controllable risk factors. Some of these studies have strong evidence to support the claims, while others are simply misleading. As October is nationally recognized as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it is time to debunk some of the recent myths and discover which factors actually increase the risk of breast cancer.
Myth #1: Oral contraception causes breast cancer
Researchers have been looking into the risks of breast cancer for decades. Because of the role estrogen has in breast cancer, hormonal contraception has been under the microscope for years. In 2017 a study was published stating that oral contraception increased a woman’s risk of breast cancer. Despite the study receiving significant attention in the media, there were some evident flaws in the findings. The researchers did not take additional factors into consideration, such as the use of non-hormonal contraception, age of first birth and tube sterilization. By omission of any likely confounders, the study was unable to adequately compare oral contraception to a proper control group, nor was it able to consider other potential risks at play. Without considering the myriad of other possible factors, the data is incomplete and should not suggest oral contraception as a definitive risk. During the same year, a study observing the impact of oral contraception over 44 years was also finalized. This research, as well as many published before its time, observed no relationship in use of oral contraception and risk of breast cancer. This study was thoroughly conducted, giving medical professionals and the public no reason to discontinue prescription and/or use of oral contraception.
Myth #2: Breast cancer only occurs in women
Though more than 99% of breast cancer diagnoses in the U.S. occur in women, men are also at risk of developing the disease. Just as for women, the biggest risk factor for men developing breast cancer is age. Most men who are diagnosed with breast cancer will be diagnosed after the age of 68. The other major risk factors for men include anything that promotes high estrogen levels. Estrogen production can increase if the man is overweight, uses hormonal medicine, heavily consumes alcohol or has been diagnosed with certain diseases. Men who have a family history, certain genetic mutations, Klinefelter syndrome or exposure to radiation near the chest are also at a higher risk of developing breast cancer.
Myth #3: Certain foods, such as meat and dairy, cause breast cancer
Though rumors of a correlation between dairy intake or meat intake and development of breast cancer abound, many studies have discredited this myth. Aside from no evidence to support an increased risk of breast cancer, dairy consumption promotes intake of several acids, proteins, vitamins and minerals that have been suggested to actually, if anything, slightly mitigate risk against breast cancer. It is important to understand that while dairy and meat are not a direct risk factor in development of breast cancer, a balanced diet may be a preventative factor. Obesity is a risk factor for both men and women, as fat cells produce estrogen—a known component in development of breast cancer cells. Monitoring one’s diet may aid in prevention of breast cancer, amongst other diseases.
Despite great advancements in early diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, there continues to be a need for further research, as millions of women have been impacted by breast cancer in the U.S. alone. Currently, the National Foundation for Cancer Research is funding research for several dedicated medical professionals devoting their time to fight breast cancer. These researchers are developing anti-cancer drugs, studying genomics, advancing technologies used to treat breast cancer, amongst other efforts. If you are interested in making a difference during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, please consider making a donation to promote these leaders in breast cancer research.