Google “breast health” on the Internet, and a mind-boggling 5 million pages pop up. It’s no wonder that women are confused about what to watch for, what to eat, and what to believe when it comes to their breasts. In an age when 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer, it’s more important than ever to sift out rumors from possible life-saving information. Here, we separate fact from fiction regarding some common beliefs about breast health.

Myth #1: Underwire bras and antiperspirants cause breast cancer.
“Gee, I wish that were true—that would be an easy fix,” says Rosalind Benedet, RN, MSN, NP, director of the Breast Cancer Recovery Program at California Pacific Medical Center’s Breast Health Center in San Francisco, where 1,000 women are screened for the disease weekly. Behind these rumors is the false idea that underwires and anti-perspirants block fluid in the breast area, causing a buildup of cancerous toxins. “We have many ways of eliminating toxins,” explains Benedet, “and if one tiny area of our body doesn’t perspire, that cannot account for breast cancer.”

Research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle also showed no link between antiperspirant use and breast cancer. In the study of regular antiperspirant users and women who do not regularly use antiperspirants, no significant difference was found in the rate of breast cancer (Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2002, vol. 94, no. 20). What’s more, says Benedet, no research has shown that the aluminum compounds in antiperspirants cause cancer.

Myth #2: Most women who get breast cancer have a family history of the disease.
“Women whose families don’t have a history of the disease often feel a false sense of security,” says Benedet. But the vast majority of breast cancer cases are not due to genetics. According to the American Cancer Society, only 10 percent of breast cancer cases are hereditary. And even if you are genetically predisposed to breast cancer, says Mark Gignac, ND, of the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center, environmental factors, such as diet and exposure to pollutants, can play a significant role in whether you develop the disease.

Myth #3: Fibrocystic breast disease and breast cysts are precursors to breast cancer.
Many health care experts now say that fibrocystic breast disease is actually not a disease but rather a condition in which normal hormonal fluctuations during a woman’s menstrual cycle cause noticeable breast changes, including lumpiness or pain. These cyclical breast changes, as well as breast cysts (benign pockets of fluid in the breast), can be easily treated and are not linked to cancer, Benedet says.

Myth #4: Breast cancer is a big risk only after menopause.
Although it’s true that 75 percent of breast cancer cases occur after menopause, experts are seeing cases in younger and younger women. “I recently saw a 22-year-old woman with one of the most aggressive types of breast cancer,” says Gignac. “That’s the first time I’ve seen a patient under the age of 25.” In fact, approximately 1 in 2,000 American women younger than 30 will develop breast cancer, and that cancer is likely to be more aggressive than the cancer in older women.

Not only do 1 in 4 cases of breast cancer occur in premenopausal women, but health habits before menopause can have an effect on whether a woman develops cancer later. For example, studies have shown that a diet high in calories, coupled with inadequate exercise during childhood and middle age, raises breast cancer risk significantly (Journal of Internal Medicine, 2001, vol. 249, no. 5).

Myth #5: Mammograms are 100 percent effective in detecting breast cancer.
“That’s certainly not the case,” cautions Benedet, particularly for younger women. As a woman ages, her breast tissue becomes more fatty and less dense, she explains, and it becomes easier for the X-ray to detect solid masses that may be cancerous. Still, even after menopause, says Benedet, mammograms miss as much as 10 percent of cancerous growths. Learning to self-examine can be a crucial tool in early detection, but “a woman’s normal breasts are lumpy and bumpy, and it can be confusing,” Benedet warns. “It’s important that women be trained in what to look for.” This includes new lumps or hard knots, changes in breast size or shape, and dimpling or puckering. And then, “if you notice any change in your breast that persists, and the mammogram is negative—no matter how old you are, even if your family has no history of breast cancer—it needs to be seriously pursued.”

Truth #1: Breast-feeding helps reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Yes, this is certainly true, says Benedet, although many women may overestimate the benefit they receive from breast-feeding. In a recent analysis of 47 previous studies on breast cancer, researchers evaluated the risk factors of approximately 50,000 women with breast cancer and 97,000 women without breast cancer in 30 countries. Researchers found that for each year of breast-feeding, overall breast cancer risk was reduced by just 4 percent (Lancet, 2002, vol. 360, no. 9328).

In developed countries, where women typically have two to three children and breast-feed for an average of three months per child, a woman may reduce her risk by only 1 percent to 2 percent. Although women may be encouraged to breast-feed for longer periods to increase the benefits slightly, “we recommend that women breast-feed not based on the reduced risk of breast cancer but to encourage the bond between mother and baby and for the health and nutrition of the baby,” says Benedet.

Truth #2: Diet and lifestyle affect cyclical breast pain.
The caffeine found in coffee, tea, soda, chocolate, and some headache medicine can exacerbate breast pain, says Benedet, who recommends sufferers slowly eliminate caffeine from the diet and stay caffeine-free for at least three months to see if symptoms ease. Benedet also sees a reduction of symptoms in patients who get regular exercise (at least 30 minutes walking per day); have adequate calcium intake (1,000 mg per day premenopause, 1,500 mg per day postmenopause); and are well-hydrated.

Truth #3: Getting a good night’s sleep can reduce your risk of breast cancer.
Insomniacs take heed: Recent studies suggest that interrupted sleep patterns may increase your risk for breast cancer. One study associated low levels of melatonin—a hormone produced by the body at night while we sleep—with a higher incidence of breast cancer in Finnish flight attendants (Lancet, 1998, vol. 352, no. 9128). One reason may be that melatonin, which performs a variety of functions in the body, inhibits the growth of breast cancer cells. “It’s also really important to sleep in darkness,” emphasizes Gignac. “If you sleep with the light on, or if you get up and use a bright light, melatonin production stops for the rest of the night.” Sleeping in a place that is as dark as possible, says Gignac, is very important for both prevention of and recovery from breast cancer.

Truth #4: Most nipple discharge is normal.
Discovering nipple discharge—another common breast concern—can be alarming if you’re not a lactating mother. But its cause may be as simple as exercising in clothes that repeatedly rub the nipple. Nipple stimulation can trigger a release of fluids whether or not you have a baby. Discharge is a concern only if it becomes bloody or watery and blood-tinged, is brown or black in color, is clear and sticky, or appears on one side only. Even if you experience bloody discharge, 90 percent is caused by benign conditions, such as papillomas—noncancerous, wartlike tumors that have grown inside the breast duct and are treatable.

Truth #5: Dietary habits influence your risk for breast cancer.
“Given the overwhelming number of environmental carcinogens,” says Gignac, “the patient who cares little for what she eats is in a very dangerous position right now compared to even 30 years ago.” Well-done meats are at the top of the list of foods that may increase breast cancer risk. When cooked at high temperatures (such as in grilling) for long periods of time, the fat in meat forms carcinogens that have been shown to affect breast tissue (Journal of Environmental Health, 2004, vol. 66, no. 7).

In addition, Gignac recommends that patients avoid dairy products containing bovine growth hormone (BVH), which can create hormonal imbalances that may lead to breast cancer. Look for dairy labels that specifically say “no bovine growth hormone” rather than simply “organic,” says Gignac. Evidence also continues to prove that a diet rich in antioxidants and other immune-enhancing phytonutrients found in whole grains, colorful fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats has a strong protective effect on breast tissue. Gignac and others recommend getting adequate amounts of cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage), flaxseed, olive oil, and cold-water fish (such as salmon, cod, and halibut), as well as green tea, as these foods are naturally high in these nutrients (see “5 Foods for Breast Health,” below).

There also has been much speculation as to the role alcohol consumption plays in the development of breast cancer. In a 2003 study, moderate, regular intake of alcohol—just one drink every day on average—increased risk for breast cancer by 7 percent (Lancet, 2002, vol. 360, no. 9336). However, a large recent study of more than 13,000 women showed that light to moderate drinking (one to two drinks per day) had little effect on a woman’s risk for breast cancer (Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 2004, vol. 28, no. 7). The study did confirm, however, that heavy drinking (more than 27 drinks per week) among premenopausal women did indeed increase their risk of breast cancer.

Radha Marcum is a frequent contributor to Delicious Living.