Five Things You Should Know About Breast Cancer

By Lissa Rankin, MD

feelyourboobiesYour Lifetime Risk Of Cancer (What The Hell Does that MEAN?)

We all hear the scary statistics- one in eight women will get breast cancer in her lifetime. Which is true, but misleading. So what does it mean?  Yes, the lifetime probability of developing invasive breast cancer (the kind that can getting into your lymph nodes and metastasize) is one in eight.

But statistics can be very confusing.  Basically, because we live longer and have better screening methods, we have higher and higher lifetime risks of breast cancer.  When you are born, you have a 12.3% chance that you will be diagnosed with breast cancer in your lifetime, but less than a 3% chance that you will die from it. When you are twenty, you have a 1.9% chance that you will be diagnosed before you are fifty.  At fifty, there is an 8.9% chance you will be diagnosed in the next thirty years.   So it’s not as if, every year, you have a one in eight chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer.  But it’s frightening, nonetheless.

Most of us know multiple women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Because I am a gynecologist, as well as an artist who has been casting the torsos of women with breast cancer for The Woman Inside Project, I know thousands.  Many are young, otherwise healthy women who had no idea they might have breast cancer until they found a lump.  So how do you know whether you are at risk?  Here’s a few myths I want to clarify for you:

5 Myths About Your Breast Cancer Risk

1)    If I have a family history, I am definitely at high risk. While this may be true, it’s usually not.  Most breast cancers are not genetic, and with one in eight women getting breast cancer, almost all of us will have a family history of some sort.  If your fifty-year old cousin Elsie and your ninety-year old Great Aunt Bertha have breast cancer but your mother and sister don’t, your risk is probably not increased.  But if your mother and sister were both diagnosed with breast cancer before menopause, your risk is definitely higher.

2)    Big breasts are more likely to get breast cancer.  Breast size is not related to cancer risk.  While examining and screening larger breasts takes more time and attention, large breasts are at no higher risk than small breasts of developing breast cancer.

3)    Because I have fibrocystic breasts and my breasts hurt, I might have breast cancer. The majority of breast cancers are painless, and most breast pain does not relate to breast cancer.  Many women have fibrocystic breasts. In fact, what we used to call fibrocystic breast disease, we now call fibrocystic change, since it’s so common and normal.  Most women with fibrocystic change do not have an increased risk of breast cancer.

4)    If I use hormone replacement or birth control pills, I will die of breast cancer. There is conflicting evidence about the effect of hormones on breast cancer risk.  While some evidence supports the idea that using hormones will increase your risk of breast cancer, this risk is very, very small and most likely represents growth of a preexisting cancer.  In major studies, women who use hormones (hormone replacement or birth control pills) do not have an increased risk of dying of breast cancer compared to women who have not used hormones.

5)    Mammograms will prevent me from getting breast cancer. While most experts recommend mammography for decreasing breast cancer risk, mammograms are an imperfect test and can miss breast cancers.  Breast thermograms, which evaluate blood flow and heat, may help to pick up early changes that may lead to breast cancer, while the changes may still be reversible. While breast thermograms are not well studied and may still miss breast cancers, they may have benefit for young women at high risk for whom mammography doesn’t serve as a good screening tool.  Mammography, and possibly thermography, can reduce your risk of dying from breast cancer.

lissarankinLissa Rankin, MD., is an OB/GYN physician with ten years of experience working one-on-one with women, the leader of a series of women’s workshops (including Owning Sexuality), a professional artist casting women with breast cancer, and founder of the popular women’s empowerment website Owning Pink: A Gutsy Guide To Getting Your Mojo Back, a website and series of workshops committed to empowering women to reclaim their health, their girlytude, and their mojo. She practices integrative gynecology at Clear Center of Health in Mill Valley, California.

She is also the author of two forthcoming books: Encaustic: A Complete Guide To Creating Fine Art With Wax (Summer 2010 by Random House) and What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend (St. Martin’s Press, Fall 2010).

This article is excerpted from Dr. Rankin’s website,

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