breast cancer marchersMarchers at a breast cancer rally last week in Amsterdam. (Marcel Antonisse/EPA)

For the next four weeks we will be awash in a sea of pink as women’s groups promote October as breast cancer awareness month. But while awareness is high, many women still have some key facts about breast cancer all wrong.

Today the National Breast Cancer Coalition released a survey of 1,000 women that finds several areas in which misinformation abounds. Over half of women, for instance, said family history is the most common risk factor for breast cancer. But the truth is that genes known to increase the risk are rare and are estimated to account for only 5 percent to 10 percent of breast cancer cases.

In fact, the biggest risk factor for breast cancer is increasing age — 80 percent of these cancers occur in women over 50. The numbers are important, because every woman needs to be vigilant about early detection, not just those women with a family history of the disease.

More than 80 percent of those surveyed believed that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. This common breast cancer statistic is often misapplied. The truth is that a woman’s lifetime risk for developing breast cancer is about one in eight, or 12 percent. About 178,000 women will be diagnosed this year, which amounts to 0.2 percent of adult women, based on United States census data. The odds that breast cancer will kill a particular woman is one in 35, according to the American Cancer Society.

Women in the survey were correct in saying heart disease is the leading killer of women, but they guessed wrong when they said breast cancer is second. Breast cancer does take a terrible toll, accounting for 40,000 deaths a year. But according to the National Center for Health Statistics, other diseases take more lives, including stroke (96,000 deaths), lung cancer (71,000), chronic lower respiratory disease (67,000) and Alzheimer’s disease (45,000).

The statistics can be confusing in part because they lump women of all ages together. It’s worth noting that heart disease does not become the biggest killer of women until age 65, while breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for American women between the ages of 20 and 59, according to the National Breast Cancer Coalition.