Do You Know Your Breast Cancer Risk?

Breast cancer risks not accurately estimated by most women

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) If you’re like the vast majority of women, you probably don’t really know what your individual breast cancer risks are. You either overestimate your chances of developing the feared disease or underestimate them. Shocked? Read on.

A recent study not only found that most women inaccurately assessed their breast cancer risks, but also that less than half of them had ever discussed their personal risks with their physicians.

The lead author, whose 13-year-old daughter did much of the work on this study, concluded that women need to know their risks in order to make good decisions about prevention and screening.

"Get an accurate idea of your breast cancer risk."

Jonathan Herman, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ Medical School in New Hide Park, NY, and his daughter Sarah, started the project in 2010.

Sarah wanted to know if what her dad was saying about women lacking an understanding about breast cancer risks was true.

“Women are surrounded by breast cancer awareness messages, through pink ribbons, walks, and other campaigns, yet our study shows that fewer than one in 10 women have an accurate understanding of their breast cancer risk — that means that our education messaging is far off and we should change the way breast cancer awareness is presented,” Dr. Herman said in a prepared statement.

The research team surveyed 9,873 women between the ages of 35 and 70, who were having breast cancer screenings at 21 centers in Long Island, New York.

The women were asked to estimate their risk of developing breast cancer over the next five years and during their lifetime.

Participants were also asked demographic (race, religion, education, marital status, health insurance) questions, as well as for information about their breast cancer risks, including how old they were when they started their period and had their first baby, family history of breast cancer and their own history and results of previous breast biopsies (tissue samples taken from suspicious areas to look for cancer).

A number of the questions were taken from the National Cancer Institute’s Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool, which physicians and patients can use to assess individual risks.

The researchers figured each participant's lifetime breast cancer risk. If the woman missed that estimate by more than 10 percent, her self-assessment was considered inaccurate.

Here’s what Sarah, her dad and the other researchers found out:

  • 9.4 percent of the women got their estimated risk right.
  • 44.7 percent underestimated their risk.
  • 45.9 percent overestimated their risk.
  • Caucasian women were more likely to overestimate their risks, while African-American, Asian and Hispanic women were more likely to underestimate their risks.
  • Only 40 percent of the women said they had ever discussed their personal breast cancer risks with their physicians.

“Women should be aware of their breast cancer risk number, just as they know their blood pressure, cholesterol, and BMI numbers,” Dr. Herman said.

Adam Brufsky, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, told dailyRx News he discusses individual risks with his patients. "Many women are relieved to know their true risk after discussion with their physician," Dr. Brufsky, who was not involved in this study, said.

The authors wrote, “Patients must have a better understanding of their personal risk. Study findings should help refocus educational efforts because increased knowledge of breast cancer risk will enable providers to tailor an individual’s medical treatment plan.“

Sarah and her father are planning a follow-up study to ask providers about their perceptions of women’s understanding of their breast cancer risks, and how often the physician discusses breast cancer risks with their patients.

Findings from this study were presented at the Breast Cancer Symposium 2013.

All research is considered preliminary before it is published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Review Date: 
September 4, 2013
Last Updated:
September 4, 2013