Frequently asked questions
Here are a few examples of some of the most commonly asked questions from teenagers about breasts and breast cancer. Click the name of the question to see the corresponding answer.
- ...using deodorant?
- ...wearing an underwired bra?
- ...injuring my breast?
- ...having my nipple pierced?
- ...drinking alcohol?
- ...taking the contraceptive pill?
- ...eating a healthy diet?
- ...mobile phones?
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in theUK. Around 55,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Of these about 400 are men.
The biggest risk factors for developing breast cancer are getting older, being female and, for a few, having a significant family history of the disease.
Just over 80% of breast cancers occur in women who are over the age of 50. Nearly half of all cases are diagnosed in people in the 50–69 age group.
Breast cancer starts when cells in the breast begin to divide and grow in an abnormal way. Breast cancer is not one single disease. There are several types of breast cancer. It can be diagnosed at different stages and can grow at different rates. This means that people can have different treatments, depending on what will work best for them.
Newspapers often have stories about different things increasing the risk of getting breast cancer. But when you look at these stories more closely, they are often just trying to grab the attention with a shocking headline and the risk itself – if proved at all – is very small.
Although there is lots of research on breast cancer, we still don't know what causes it. There doesn't seem to be one single cause, but rather a combination of lots of different things. We do know some things that increase the risk of getting breast cancer, but not all of them – and we still don't know why some people get it and some don't.
Smoking is the biggest single cause of cancer in the world and although lots of studies have looked at smoking and breast cancer, they have given conflicting results. A recent study has indicated that smoking from a young age and continuing to do so may increase the risk, particularly in women who have been through the menopause (change of life).
Smoking is definitely not a good idea – it's known to increase the risk not only of lung cancer but also of cancer of the bladder, cervix, kidney, voice box (larynx), mouth, food pipe (oesophagus), pancreas, stomach and some types of leukaemia. Smoking has also been proven to increase the risk of heart disease and some respiratory conditions.
A hoax email first linked antiperspirants and deodorants to breast cancer. It claimed that deodorants stop the body from sweating out toxins and that these toxins build up in the lymph glands under the armpit and cause breast cancer.
Our bodies have several ways of getting rid of toxins and, while sweating is one of them, it does not involve the lymph glands. Research done on this subject did not find any convincing evidence that antiperspirants or deodorants cause breast cancer.
In addition media reports said that deodorants and antiperspirants containing high levels of aluminium can cause breast cancer. There is no reliable evidence to support these claims
It's been suggested that underwired bras constrict the body's lymph glands, leading to breast cancer. This is not true. A poorly fitting bra may lead to discomfort and pain, but it will not increase the risk of developing breast cancer.
An injury such as falling or being hit in the chest will not increase breast cancer risk. It may cause bruising and swelling to the breast. Sometimes this may lead to a benign lump (not cancer) known as fat necrosis. Fat necrosis occurs when the fatty breast tissue swells and becomes tender. As the body naturally repairs the damaged breast tissue, scar tissue could form in its place.
Nipple piercing will not increase the risk of breast cancer. But it may increase the risk of infection, and breastfeeding later in life may be difficult if the milk ducts are damaged.
Drinking more than the recommended daily amount increases the risk of developing breast cancer and can contribute to many heart conditions.
Numerous studies have looked at whether taking the oral contraceptive pill increases the risk of developing breast cancer. These have produced conflicting results, with some finding an increased risk and others not. Recently a large study showed there was no increased risk of developing breast cancer because of taking the pill.
Experts agree that any increase in risk is likely to be small and only applies when you are taking the pill. Within 10 years of stopping the risk returns to that of someone who has never taken the contraceptive pill.
Breast cancer is rare in younger women, for whom taking the pill is still an effective contraceptive. If you’re worried about taking the pill, discuss it with your GP (local doctor).
Eating a healthy diet can actually reduce the risk of getting some types of cancer later in life. It can also protect against heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes and diabetes. But those who don't eat a healthy diet and are very overweight (obese) have an increased risk of getting breast cancer as they get older.
Sunbathing topless will not cause breast cancer. But because the skin on the breast is delicate, it's more likely to get burnt than other areas of the body. Also, over-exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight and from sun beds can cause skin cancer.
To reduce this risk, always limit time in the sun, use a sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF), be careful never to burn and cover up with a hat, shirt and sunglasses.
There is no evidence to suggest that carrying a mobile phone in your breast pocket increases the risk of developing breast cancer.
As your breasts grow and develop it's not unusual for one breast to grow bigger than the other. This is because your breasts grow independently of each other. For some people the size difference can be subtle and for others it can be more noticeable. Many women have one breast bigger than the other and this is nothing to worry about.
It is normal for the breasts to feel uncomfortable and painful at times. Breast pain has been described as anything ranging from a mild ache to a sharp, stabbing, burning sensation.
For some people breast pain is affected by fluctuating hormone levels where the pain is at its worst just before a period, settling down again afterwards. For others the pain can happen at any time.
There are many different practical measures and treatments to help settle breast pain, so talk to someone if this is a problem for you.
Although we don't fully understand what causes breast cancer, we know that being female and getting older are important factors that increase risk. Breast cancer is a very common disease and is seen much more often in women over the age of 50.
Because it is common it's not unusual to have an older family member with breast cancer, but this does not necessarily mean that you or your mum is at a higher risk of developing breast cancer. It's good to hear that your mum is discussing this with her GP as the doctor will be able to offer further information and support about your family’s situation.
Content last revised October 2012; next planned revision 2014