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Cancer Mythbusters: Breast Lumps and Cancer

  • While most breast lumps are not cancer, there are many other myths that persist about the relationship between the two. Beth Overmoyer, MD, director of the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Program at Dana-Farber's Susan F. Smith Center for Women's Cancers, helps set the story straight on some of the biggest questions about breast lumps.

    Read the transcript:

    MEGAN: Hi, I'm Megan Riesz, and this is Cancer Mythbusters, a podcast from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute about the many myths and misconceptions in the world of cancer. Every episode, we'll take a look at a myth and debunk it with the help of our world-leading clinicians and researchers.

    Cancer is complicated.

    And it gets even more complicated in the 21st century world, where facts and myths can be easily confused.

    Take breast cancer, for example.

    If you Google "breast cancer," you get 157,000,000 results. That's 157,000,000 different articles, blog posts, advocacy organization websites, hospitals, and more, with tons of different ideas about treatment and causes.

    Sometimes it's hard to sift through the noise to find the facts, especially as it relates to breast lumps and cancer. While most breast lumps are not cancer, there are many other myths that persist about the relationship between the two.

    So, I sat down with Dr. Beth Overmoyer, Director of the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Program at Dana-Farber to get the story straight.

    MEGAN: Thanks for joining us, Dr. Overmoyer.

    DR. OVERMOYER: It's absolutely my pleasure.

    MEGAN: So, breast lumps… Let's address this right off the bat — does breast cancer always appear as a lump, or are there other symptoms as well?

    DR. OVERMOYER: Breast cancer doesn't always appear as a lump. It basically can appear if there's any change in the breast itself. One starts from the outside:

    • Any skin change, such as redness or thickening of the skin
    • Changes in the nipple — if the nipple was originally outward, it starts retracting inward
    • Changes in the breast skin itself — dimpling, pulling in on different sides

    All of those can mean that there may be a cancer underlying the problem.

    MEGAN: So, are all malignant breast lumps painful, or is there a way that women can tell if a lump is cancer by the way it feels?

    DR. OVERMOYER: Actually, most malignant breast lumps are not painful, and sometimes it's difficult for a woman to tell the difference between a cancer and a non-cancer lump, so one must get to know her breast. I'm a firm advocate in self-breast exams because cysts are very prevalent, and a woman needs to know what is a cyst and what has been there for a long time. If you notice a change in the lump, that should bring you to the physician.

    MEGAN: Many women think if they find a lump, and they don't have a family history of breast cancer, that the lump is mostly likely harmless. What's the deal here?

    DR. OVERMOYER: When someone talks about a family history of breast cancer, they often think about an inherited risk of getting breast cancer, which really only accounts for five percent to 10 percent of all breast cancers. Not having a family history doesn't mean that you won't have the unfortunate situation of developing breast cancer. Again, if you find a lump that is new that shouldn't be there, you need to go to a medical person.

    MEGAN: And lastly, is a small lump less likely to be cancer than a large lump?

    DR. OVERMOYER: No. I would rather you find a small lump that is cancer than a large lump that is cancer.

    MEGAN: Thanks so much for joining us today, Dr. Overmoyer.

    DR. OVERMOYER: It is my pleasure.

    MEGAN: So, there you have it! Breast cancer doesn't always appear as a lump; there are many other symptoms. Most malignant lumps aren't painful. Not having a family history of breast cancer doesn't mean you can't get breast cancer. And a small lump is not less likely to be cancer than a large lump.

    But what's most important here is that you go see your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms, or if you have any concerns about your health.

    See all Cancer Mythbusters episodes

  • Inflammatory Breast Cancer