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Breast Cancer: Expert Advice On Recognising Warning Signs Plus Common Myths Exposed

25/10/2012 18:16 | Updated 22 May 2015
Breast cancer: Warning signs and risk myths bustedAlamy

The vast majority of women don't know the warning signs of breast cancer, according to shocking new research from charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer.

October is breast cancer awareness month. One thousand women die each month from the disease, yet the charity has found that just 2% of women can name five warning signs of breast cancer. What's more, too many women, it says, still believe inaccurate myths about the risks of developing breast cancer.

Breakthrough Breast Cancer Ambassador Dr Hilary Jones says: "Many women don't check their breasts because they don't think they are at risk, they don't know what signs and symptoms they are looking for, or they simply forget."

A new guide launched by Breakthrough Breast Cancer explains the warning signs of cancer:

1. Lump – might not be seen but may be felt

2. Skin texture, e.g. dimpling/puckering

3. Appearance or direction of nipple

4. Nipple discharge

5. Rash or crusting

All women, however healthy their lifestyle, are advised to feel and look for any changes and if they spot anything unusual, to check it out with their GP.

Emma Campbell was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, aged 39. She says: "I ignored the signs for far too long – was too busy, too distracted and too scared to pick up the phone and make that appointment. I hate to think what my situation might be now if I'd carried on burying my head in the sand.

"There are so many myths out there about what causes breast cancer – myths like using deodorants or wearing underwired bras – but what really matters is aiming for a healthier lifestyle, regularly checking your breasts and going to your GP if you notice anything unusual."

Dr Rachel Greig, Senior Policy Officer at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, has outlined the biggest myths women believe about breast cancer.

Myth 1: Cancer risk increases if you have larger breasts

Dr Grieg says: "There is no good scientific evidence to suggest a link between larger breasts and an increased breast cancer risk. There is no one single cause of breast cancer - instead it's a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors."

Myth 2: IVF may increase breast cancer risk

"It is unclear whether IVF treatment affects the risk of breast cancer as only a very small number of studies have looked into this," says Dr Grieg.

"IVF treatment increases the levels of female hormones such as oestrogen, which is why some people speculate it may increase the risk of breast cancer. However until more research is available we will not know if this is the case."

Myth 3: Stress can increase risk of breast cancer

"We do not yet know whether stress increases the risk of breast cancer; stress is a highly subjective state so it is difficult to measure," reports Dr Grieg.

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However, in some cases, stress can lead to unhealthy behaviour such as overeating and drinking alcohol – both of which can increase your risk of breast cancer.

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Myth 4: Working nights increases breast cancer risk

"Shift work is a possible risk factor for breast cancer but more research needs to be done," says Dr Grieg.

"For instance, it's not clear whether it's the unhealthy behaviour caused by working night shifts, like eating badly or being inactive, that's the possible cause, rather than shift work itself. Women, therefore, need to think about their overall lifestyle whatever hours they work."

Myth 5: Deodorants/antiperspirants can increase risk of breast cancer

Dr Grieg explains:

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Using deodorants or antiperspirants does not increase your risk of breast cancer, so women need not worry about using these products.

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"However, women are advised to avoid using a deodorant, antiperspirant or talc containing aluminium when they go for breast screening only because it might show up on an x-ray and give an inaccurate reading."

Myth 6: Push-up bras can increase breast cancer risk

"Wearing an underwired bra does not increase your risk of breast cancer, despite some claims," says Dr Grieg. "Women need not be concerned about wearing any type of bra."

Myth 7: High dairy intake can increase risk

"A number of studies have looked at whether diets high in dairy impact on breast cancer risk but the link is still not clear," says Dr Grieg. "One of the reasons why it's hard to research the effects of diet on breast cancer is that we each eat a variety of different foods so trying to unpick individual effects can be difficult.

"However, we do know that diets high in fat and sugar can lead to obesity and gaining weight in adulthood can increase breast cancer risk."

Lucy Burke, 33, is one woman who will be making changes to her diet as a result of understanding this advice. She says: "I'm trying to make some lifestyle changes to try to reduce my risk of developing breast cancer. I'm trying to maintain a healthy weight, so have been snacking on fresh fruit and veg instead of crisps and biscuits."

Myth 8: Women with large firstborns have double the breast cancer risk

"Because pregnancy increases levels of the hormones associated with breast cancer, it has been suggested that women who give birth to large babies, who have higher levels of these hormones, may be more at risk of developing the disease. However, there is limited scientific data available to demonstrate this and more research is needed for us to know whether or not the size of first born impacts on risk," Dr Grieg says.

"What we do know is that overall, in the long term, pregnancy reduces the risk of breast cancer but these reasons are quite complex."

According to the charity, there are many things that do affect your risk of breast cancer which cannot be changed, such as your age or height.

However, there are some factors that you can choose to change, such as your weight, how much alcohol you drink and the amount of physical activity you do.

"We don't know all the causes of breast cancer, but we do know your risk is affected by a combination of factors, including age, genes, lifestyle and environment," says Dr Caitlin Palframan, Policy Manager at Breakthrough Breast Cancer.

Tracey Kidman-Pepper was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 aged 35. She says: "It is important to check yourself regularly and know what is normal for you. Any change, I urge you to go to your GP and get it checked."

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