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Published: October, 2013; Vol 10, Num 5

Do You Know Your Breast Cancer Risk?

Most women know that when pink ribbons proliferate on lapels, soup cans and cereal boxes, it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Unfortunately, this does not mean that they are adequately aware of their personal breast cancer risk.

A new survey of nearly 10,000 women finds that when it comes to understanding their likelihood for developing a disease that this year alone will be responsible for more than 60,000 deaths in the United States and Canada, most women are in the dark.

"[F]ewer 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," lead study author Dr. Jonathan Herman, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Hofstra North-Shore-LIJ Medical School in New Hyde Park, New York, said in an interview with HealthDay.

Men Can Develop Breast Cancer, Too

Breast cancer is rare in men but no less lethal.

The American Cancer Society identifies several signs involving the breast that men as well as women should discuss with their doctor. These include:

  • Skin dimpling or puckering
  • Nipple retraction
  • Redness or scaling of the nipple or breast skin
  • Nipple discharge

Call immediately if you develop any of these symptoms.

Using questions adapted from the U.S. National Cancer Institute's Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool, which assists doctors in determining a patient's risk, researchers questioned women between the ages of 35 and 70 who were undergoing breast cancer screenings at 21 mammography centers located in New York.

In addition to answering questions about race, education and marital status, the women were asked to estimate what they thought their five-year and lifetime risks were for developing breast cancer.

Most got it wrong.

Nearly 45 percent underestimated their risk and nearly 46 percent overestimated. White women were more likely to overestimate their breast cancer risk. African American, Asian and Hispanic women were more likely to underestimate.

When a woman has an accurate risk assessment, she can better decide what measures she needs to take to stay healthy. These steps can include additional screening, drug treatments or, as recently elected by actress Angelina Jolie, preventive mastectomy.

Jolie made her decision after testing positive for a BRCA gene mutation that increases risk for certain kinds of breast and ovarian cancer, diseases that have taken the lives of her mother and several other close relatives. Most breast cancers, however, are not the result of a genetic mutation.

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death among women. Only lung cancer claims more victims.

Just as it is important to know blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, women – men, too – should know their breast cancer risk. If you have not done so already, call your doctor this month and make an appointment to discuss this disease. It is not enough to put on a pink ribbon. Find out what you can do now to lower your risk of breast cancer.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]