Read This, Not That: Response to a Recent Article

Last week, the website “Eat This, Not That” shared an article on breast cancer that VBCF finds misleading and, frankly, insulting to women. Their article “8 Bad Habits Leading to Breast Cancer” sets a disappointing tone from the beginning. This title suggests that women are to blame for their breast cancer diagnosis, that their illness is their fault, and that their fate could have been avoided if they had “followed the rules.” As one scrolls through the article, the images selected to illustrate the article’s point are also damaging. First, there is a woman staring at a glass of red wine, appearing distraught, followed later by another woman closing her eyes and (gasp!) savoring a glass of red wine. These images of women drinking alone and giving the impression of a “problem drinker” are meant to cause the reader to scorn them for their actions. Similarly, there is an image of a woman sitting on a couch, eating pizza while on her phone. Along with the title, this image illustrates gluttony, letting the reader think this woman deserves to have breast cancer. But beyond the terrible tone of this article, there is also inaccurate information.

First “Bad Habit”

The first of the “bad habits” mentioned in the article is “not performing self-exams.” First of all, not performing a self-exam could not cause someone to develop breast cancer, as self-exams were recommended to help catch cancer early and never to prevent it from developing. Secondly, breast self-exams are no longer supported by research and haven’t been for years, because there is no right or wrong technique or time of the month to check one’s breast. Yes, it is important to be familiar with the look and feel of your breasts and chest, but prescribed and specific breast exams don’t help to do that. VBCF recommends instead observing your body regularly, while showering, getting dressed, and performing other normal activities so you can notice when something doesn’t feel right.

Second “Bad Habit”

The second “bad habit” is “not getting screening mammograms.” Like breast self-exams, mammograms do not prevent breast cancer. This is a myth that can cause people to believe that if they get their mammograms as scheduled then they will never get breast cancer, which is not true. Mammograms can help to catch breast cancer early when there are more treatment options available but cannot prevent the development of breast cancer. VBCF is a major advocate for regular mammograms, but mammograms will not prevent breast cancer.

The following items listed actually can increase one’s risk of developing breast cancer, but again the images selected and the tone in which the advice is given is potentially shaming. Using tobacco products, drinking alcohol, lack of exercise, and a diet high in processed foods can increase breast cancer risk, but the relationships of each to breast cancer are complicated and not necessarily well understood. Also, people can engage in all of these behaviors and live a long and healthy life, or can engage in none of them and be diagnosed with breast cancer. VBCF is in favor of increased research in each of these areas so that people have accurate information upon which to make their own choices about how they want to live their lives. Regardless of previous or current behavior, no one deserves breast cancer.

Final “Bad Habits”

The final “bad habits” that are listed include taking hormonal birth control or hormone replacement therapy. Calling doctor-prescribed therapies “bad habits” is wrong on a lot of levels. Yes, these medications can increase risk of breast cancer, but there are also major benefits that this medications can provide patients. Women are already shamed in society for taking birth control, and women going through menopause are often a punchline, there is no need to add to this discomfort by calling taking prescribed medication a “bad habit.”

When behavioral influences on cancer development are discussed, the scientific and lay community need to be really careful to avoid shaming people for their behavior. People are less likely to seek care for what they fear will be perceived as consequences of “bad habits,” and for good reason, because if they are perceived as having “brought it on themselves,” that may change the quality of care and support that they receive. Additionally, there is not enough information on many of the listed behaviors to develop a causal link between the behavior and developing breast cancer. 

In Conclusion

Shaming someone who has had something difficult happen in their life can be a defense mechanism. Someone can think “oh, that person doesn’t live a healthy lifestyle like I do, that’s why they got cancer,” and tell themselves that they are safe from their friend’s fate because they behave differently. It is human to try and comfort ourselves with stories like this, but unfortunately, that doesn’t make them true. No one deserves breast cancer, and avoiding these “bad habits” doesn’t guarantee that someone will escape breast cancer. Right now, the power lies in informing ourselves of the risks and benefits of different behaviors, lifestyles, and medications, and then deciding what to do with that information.

For more information on alcohol and obesity and breast cancer, check out our previous blogs on those topics.

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