Answers to 10 Common Questions About Breast Cancer

To get answers to ten commonly-asked questions about breast cancer, I asked Dr. William Gradishar, an oncologist at Feinberg School Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago. He addresses concerns about the possible causes of breast cancer, and gives information about treatment.

Q: Does using birth control pills cause breast cancer?

Woman holding birth control pills, mid section
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A: There appears to be no clear increase between the use of birth control pills and increased breast cancer risk. Though birth control pills do contain certain hormones, the amounts are small. As every woman and case of breast cancer is different, women should talk with their doctors about their personal risk factors for breast cancer.

Q: Can eating certain foods cause breast cancer?

A: Several large studies looking at the link between foods and breast cancer have been conducted. To date, a link between foods and breast cancer has not been identified. A few studies have found a possible link between fat and breast cancer, but further research needs to be completed. As a general rule of thumb, the best practice is to eat a healthy diet rich in lean proteins, whole grains and fibrous fruits and vegetables. Most importantly, please talk to your doctor before beginning any diet or nutrition regiment.

Q: Do all antiperspirants cause breast cancer?

A: Antiperspirants do not appear to be a cause of breast cancer. Recent rumors have circulated claiming that the body needs to purge toxins by sweating through the armpits and that if an antiperspirant is used, the body will store those toxins in the lymph nodes below the arm, causing breast cancer. These claims are not true; the body does not release toxins through underarm sweat. Sweat found in the underarm area is made up of 99.9% water, sodium, potassium and magnesium.

Q: Can an injury to my breast develop into breast cancer?

A: Injury to the breast does not cause breast cancer. In some cases, the breast may become bruised after an injury and, in rare cases, develop a non-cancerous lump called fat necrosis. Fat necrosis is not dangerous, and the symptoms usually subside within a month. If you have a lump in your breast and are concerned that it may be breast cancer, consult with your doctor immediately.

Q: Will wearing underwire bras cause breast cancer?

A: Wearing an underwire bra will not cause breast cancer. A popular book published in 1995 suggested that underwire bras constrict the body's lymph node system, causing breast cancer. This claim is inaccurate. No studies have found a link between select undergarments and breast cancer.

Q: Do mammograms cause breast cancer?

A: No, mammograms do not cause breast cancer. In fact, the American Cancer Society recommends that women over 40 or 44 years of age have a mammogram every year until age 55, then every 2 years.

Mammograms use low levels of radiation that are determined to be safe by the American College of Radiology. Mammograms are an excellent tool for detecting breast cancer at an early stage, and early detection is essential in reducing the number of women who develop stage IV, also known as metastatic breast cancer. As every woman and case of breast cancer is different, women should talk with their doctors about their personal risk factors for breast cancer. In some cases, women with a high risk of breast cancer should have a mammogram before the age of 40.

Q: If I have fibrocystic breasts, am I at higher risk for breast cancer?

A: About 50 percent of women will be affected by fibrocystic breast condition at some point in their lives. Fibrocystic breasts are common and non-cancerous. Fibrocystic breasts are not a risk factor for breast cancer. They do make detection with standard imaging and exam techniques more difficult, but not impossible.

Q: Will surgery to remove a breast cause the cancer to spread?

A: When breast cancer spreads, it is said to have metastasized. No one knows what causes breast cancer to metastasize, but there is no link between the surgical removal of a breast and the spread of breast cancer.

Metastatic breast cancer is the most advanced stage of breast cancer. There are various treatment options available today for women with this disease -- including chemotherapy, endocrine therapy and targeted therapy -- which continue to play a central role in the treatment of metastatic breast cancer. It is important that women with this disease speak with their doctors about their treatment options.

Q: Does breast cancer affect only post-menopausal women?

A: No, women of all ages can develop breast cancer. A woman's risk of developing breast cancer does increase as she ages, making it important for all women 40 and older to have an annual mammogram. The American Cancer Society says that breast self-exams are optional for women over 20, but recommends that women be familiar with how their breasts normally look and feel. Women should report any new breast changes to their doctor as soon as they are found.  Early detection is important in increasing survival and reducing the chances of the cancer metastasizing (spreading).

Q: Can I get breast cancer if it doesn't run in my family?

A: A family history of breast cancer does increase risk; however, more than 80% of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer do not have identifiable risk factors for breast cancer, like a family history.

William Gradishar, MD

Dr. William Gradishar
Dr. William Gradishar. Northwestern University

William Gradishar, MD is a professor of medicine in the division of hematology and medical oncology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago. He is a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University and has dedicated his life's work to finding new and better treatments for breast cancer. He has worked with government and advocacy organizations to bring breast cancer to the forefront so that women and families facing the disease can find the support they need today and look forward to the promise of the future.


American Cancer Society. American Cancer Society recommendations for early breast cancer detection in women without breast symptoms. Updated 10/20/15.

American Cancer Society. Antiperspirants/Deodorants and Breast Cancer. Updated 01/04/08.

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