Breast Cancer Risk Assessment

By Dr. Lisa Larkin, MD, FACP, NCMP, IF

Nearly all women are aware that screening for breast cancer with an annual mammogram is important, and most of us check the box off after our annual mammogram and forget about the risk of breast cancer for a year. But an annual screening for breast cancer versus understanding personal risk of developing breast cancer are two vastly different things. New tools now offer individualized breast cancer risk assessment to help women determine their personal risk for breast cancer – an important metric in overall health. There is no better time than October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month – to consider your individual risk, and how you may prevent breast cancer.

From young adulthood, women worry about their risk of developing breast cancer; we understand that just by being female, we are at risk. Most of us know the statistic, “1 in 8,” or 12% of women will develop breast cancer over the course of their lifetime. What we also know is that many women are actually at much higher risk of developing breast cancer than the 12% risk of the general population – and they don’t know it.

Conversely, other women are at a substantially lower risk of developing breast cancer than the general population. For these women, more focus on other efforts pertinent to their individualized risk profile – such as diabetes and heart disease prevention – might be more appropriate than breast cancer detection efforts.

Imaging, with mammography, ultrasound and breast MRI, are tests that detect cancer. These tests do not prevent cancer or help an individual woman understand her risk. And while early detection is critical, as survival rates have vastly improved for women with early disease, prevention of breast cancer entirely is the winning ticket for an individual woman.

Research also continues to shed light on specific factors that impact an individual woman’s risk for breast cancer, including diet, body weight, alcohol intake, puberty, age at first birth, family history and breast density. And now, there are newer versions of breast cancer risk assessment models that take these factors into consideration. Clinicians can use these breast cancer risk assessment tools to determine an individual woman’s risk of breast cancer and compare that risk to the average risk of breast cancer for a woman the same age in the population.

There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer; the first step is understanding your own individual risk. Check with your healthcare provider to learn more.

Lisa Larkin, MD, FACP, NCMP, IF, is an internal medicine and women’s health physician in Cincinnati, OH. She is president of Lisa Larkin, MD, and Associates and the Director of Women’s Corporate Health with TriHealth.

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