Knowledge is Power: Understanding Breast Cancer Risk Assessments

A diagnosis of breast cancer is a terrifying reality to face. Unfortunately, the disease seems to know few boundaries, affecting women and men of all ages and ethnicities. According to the American Cancer Society, about one in eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer during her lifetime.

Sara Fogarty, DO, breast surgeon at the Sandra & Malcolm Berman Comprehensive Breast Care Center at Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC), does not want that statistic to frighten women. “People should keep in mind that modern medicine has many tools available to estimate a patient’s risk, detect abnormalities early and treat the disease successfully,” she says. “In addition to self-exams and regular visits to an OB-GYN, a lifetime risk assessment is one of the most valuable weapons women have against breast cancer.”

Why is a Risk Assessment Important?

Ignorance is often described as bliss, but when it comes to breast cancer, knowledge is power. After an appointment with a physician, patients are presented with a complete picture of their odds for developing breast cancer at some point during their lives. The results of the assessment allow the physician to determine when it’s appropriate to begin mammograms for screening and whether the patient is eligible for more extensive MRI screening or genetic testing. In certain cases, the risk assessment result may signal the physician that a discussion about preventive breast removal surgery (prophylactic mastectomy) is worthwhile.

What to Expect

During a lifetime risk assessment, the physician will inquire about a number of standard personal health details like age, menopausal status, use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and parity, which refers to the number of children a woman has borne. He or she will also measure the patient’s body mass index (BMI) and take a family history of first- and second-degree relatives with breast or ovarian cancer, including their ages at the time of diagnosis. The physician uses a tool to assess the data and can discuss results with the patient during the same visit.

The Bottom Line

Although patients cannot control some risk factors like family history or age, they can take action on others. Measures that have the most impact on reducing risk include maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise, breastfeeding if possible, minimizing alcohol use to no more than one drink per day and avoiding or limiting HRT. “Breast cancer risk assessments are often the beginning of a conversation between the patient and physician about what the patient can control in order to decrease her risk,” notes Dr. Fogarty. “This is an important first step toward prevention.”

This webpage is for informational purposes only and not intended as medical advice or a substitute for a consultation with a professional healthcare provider.