On breast cancer and certainty: Some myths to consider

A BRCA gene mutation and a mammogram do not always have definite outcomes. Similarly, it is not always definite that a breast abnormality is directly life-threatening.
Read more on these myths.

“Having a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation means I will certainly get breast cancer”

Where does the myth come from?

Specific inherited mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes increase the risk of female breast and ovarian cancers (and have been linked with increased risks of other cancer types too). These mutations account for about 20-25% of hereditary breast cancers and about 5-10% of all breast cancers. Breast and ovarian cancers associated with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations tend to develop at younger ages than their nonhereditary counterparts.

The reality behind the myth

Carrying the BRCA1 and the BRCA2 mutations certainly increases the risk of getting breast cancer at some point in one’s life. However, not every woman who has a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation will develop breast cancer (or ovarian cancer). On the other hand, a woman who has inherited a harmful mutation in BRCA1 or BRCA2 is about five times more likely to develop breast cancer than a woman who does not have such a mutation.”

Therefore, it should be made clear that there is no certainty of breast cancer in case of a mutation in the BRCA1 or the BRCA2 gene.



“If my mammography report is negative, it means that I don’t have cancer”

Where does the myth come from?

A negative mammogram means that the radiologist did not see any abnormalities in the breast tissue on the films. However, as mammography is not a perfect test, it does not detect all breast cancers.

The reality behind the myth

Despite their importance for breast cancer screening and diagnosis, they are not perfect: mammograms fail to detect around 10%-20% of breast cancers. This is for many reasons.

One of them is because normal breast tissue can hide a breast tumor, and therefore it may not come up on the mammogram. This is called a false-negative.

Another is when radiologists decide mammograms are abnormal but no cancer is actually present; this is called a false-positive. All abnormal mammograms should be followed up with additional testing (diagnostic mammograms, ultrasound, and/or biopsy) to determine whether cancer is present.


All types of breast cancer are life-threatening

Where does the myth come from?

Breast cancer is often thought of as one disease, but is actually a group of different cancers that affect the breast. There are several types of breast cancer, though some are quite rare. The types of breast cancer include noninvasive or in situ, invasive, inflammatory and Paget’s disease of the nipple. As breast cancer is the second most common cause of death from cancer in women in the United States, after lung cancer, people tend to believe that all types of breast cancer are deadly.

The reality behind the myth

Not all breast cancers are life-threatening, but most cancers will grow if left untreated. Survival depends on the stage of the cancer when it was diagnosed. This means how big it is and whether it has spread. Other factors that can affect survival include the type of cancer and whether the cancer cells have receptors for particular cancer drugs. The grade of the cancer cells can also affect your likely survival. Grade means how abnormal the cells look under the microscope.

Other sources include Health.com, British Columbia Cancer Agency and National Breast Cancer Foundation.

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