Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer among women, globally and in India, where it accounted for 13.5% of all cancer cases and 10.6% of all cancer deaths in 2020, per an India Cancer Research Consortium study published in March 2022. By that year, it had become the world's most prevalent cancer, per the World Health Organization (WHO).

In India, a woman is reportedly diagnosed with breast cancer every four minutes and a woman dies from the disease every 13 minutes. Over 205,000 cases were reported in India in 2020, per health ministry data, and these are expected to increase to more than 230,000 in 2025, a 12% increase against a population increase of 5%.

Breast cancer is a disease in which a cancerous growth forms in breast tissue, per the WHO. Common symptoms include a lump or thickening in the breast or armpit, breast or nipple pain, thickening or swelling of part of the breast, irritation or dimpling of breast skin, and bloody discharge. Early detection and prompt treatment is the most efficient intervention to control breast cancer.

Lack of knowledge and insufficient awareness about the causes and symptoms of breast cancer are the main factors behind widespread misconceptions about the disease in India, said Dr Ramesh Sarin, senior consultant, surgical oncology at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi. This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, FactChecker spoke to Dr Sarin to bust seven common myths about the disease.

Myth #1: Breast cancer is caused due to underarm antiperspirants and deodorants

Fact: Researchers at the National Cancer Institute, a United States government body, have not found any concrete evidence associating the use of underarm deodorants or antiperspirants with subsequent development of breast cancer.

"There is a common perception that antiperspirants clog the oil glands, which leads to the creation of lymph nodes. However, using antiperspirants or deodorant has not been proven to be the cause of or a high-risk factor for breast cancer. Avoiding the use of deodorants too doesn't ensure prevention of breast cancer," said Dr Sarin.

Myth #2: Wearing a bra, especially an underwired one, increases the risk of breast cancer

Fact: "Breast cancer strikes both, those who wear bras and those who don't, with equal intensity and severity," said Dr Sarin. No link was found between breast cancer and bra usage during an American Association for Cancer Research study of 1,500 women published in 2014.

The misconception that an underwired bra leads to breast cancer is due to the assumption that bras compress the lymphatic system, which obstructs lymph flow, leading to the formation of cancer-causing cells. However, this is not a proven fact but a myth, explained Dr Sarin.

Although bra-wearing and breast cancer have no proven link, Dr Sarin suggested that a good fitting bra is very important for overall breast health.

Myth #3: Men cannot get breast cancer

Fact: "Men too can get breast cancer as they also have glandular tissue in the breast. The duct that secretes milk is present in men too," said Dr Sarin. However, as the size of breasts are smaller in men, the breast tissue too is small and they are thus at a lower risk of getting breast cancer, compared to women. Male breast cancer accounts for less than 1% of all breast cancers, per a study published in the Indian Journal of Surgery in September 2019.

"Men do get breast cancer, though the incidence is 1%," said Dr Sarin. The symptoms of breast cancer remain the same in men as women, and they should consult a doctor if symptoms persist.

Myth #4: All breast lumps are cancerous

Fact: "In a majority of cases, breast lumps are non-cancerous in people under the age of 25. However, beyond age 50, 8 out of 10 people might have cancerous breast lumps. The higher the age, more the chances of breast lumps being cancerous," Dr Sarin told Factchecker. The size of lymph nodes is not indicative of the presence of breast cancer, she added.

Breast lumps might also be a result of benign breast conditions such as cysts, according to the American Cancer Society. Ultrasounds and mammograms can help distinguish between benign and malignant lymph nodes.

Myth #5: Only those with a family history of breast cancer are susceptible to it

Fact: "Many people think that breast cancer is solely an inherited disease. Although family history increases one's risk of developing breast cancer, anybody without a family history can also get it. About 75% of breast cancer cases occur in women with no family history of the disease. The most significant risk factors for breast cancer are being a woman and getting older," said Dr Sarin. Most women who get breast cancer do not have a family history of the disease, says the American Cancer Society.

Apart from genetics, factors such as obesity, stress, sedentary lifestyle, polluted environment, consumption of alcohol and smoking can also lead to breast cancer. Breast self-examination is an important screening method to detect breast cancer early on.

Myth #6: The radiation from mammograms raises the risk of breast cancer

Fact: "The benefits of mammography… nearly always outweigh the potential harm from the radiation exposure. Mammograms require very small doses of radiation. The risk of harm from this radiation exposure is extremely low," according to the National Cancer Institute,

"The radiation caused by traveling from Delhi to Mumbai by air is four times higher than a single mammography. A yearly mammogram after the age of 50 is not a risk factor for breast cancer as mammography uses low-energy X-ray values between the range of 20 to 40 kilovoltage peak, which is of negligible range," said Dr Sarin.

Myth #7: Only older people are at risk of breast cancer

Fact: "Younger women are also at risk of breast cancer. In fact, in India, younger women are affected by breast cancer more often than in the West," said Dr Sarin. Irrespective of age and gender, any abnormalities in the breast should be immediately reported to a doctor as early detection helps save lives.

Breast cancer tends to be more aggressive in younger women and women in this age group have a lower survival rate than older women, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Women who are diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 40 or younger had a 30% higher chance of dying from the disease, than those who were diagnosed between the ages of 51 and 60.