Weather Updates

Most women’s risk assessment for breast cancer is off: study

Updated: October 7, 2013 12:46PM

One might think that with all the public health and other messages about breast cancer awareness out there, women would have an accurate idea about how likely they would be to get breast cancer.

But a new study suggests that isn’t the case.

An analysis of nearly 10,000 New York women who were scheduled to undergo mammography found that the majority either under- or overestimated their lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Forty-five percent underestimated their risk, while 46 percent overestimated.

Though it was not a national sample, the study is one of the largest to try to quantify women’s perception of breast cancer.

It was presented ahead of the 2013 Breast Cancer Symposium in San Francisco. The findings are considered preliminary because they haven’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

“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,” said lead study author Dr. Jonathan Herman, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ Medical School in New Hyde Park, NY.

One of the most common reasons given for underestimating their risk was that they did not have a family member who had breast cancer. Debbie Saslow, director of Breast & Gynecologic Cancer for the American Cancer Society, noted that 80 percent of women who have breast cancer have no family history.

By underestimating a woman’s risk, she may not benefit from treatments, such as tamoxifen, that could possibly prevent breast cancer in women at high-risk, Herman noted. At the same time, those who overestimated their risk might experience unnecessary anxiety, testing and interventions.

The women in the study ranged from ages 35 to 70. They were asked to estimate their own risk of developing breast cancer over the next five years and over their lifetime.

Saslow, who did not take part in the study, said, “it’s not surprising at all that most people, regardless of breast cancer or any other topic, will underestimate or overestimate what it really is. And even after it’s been assigned to them, they will often walk away and still not really understand it.”

Research is ongoing to determine the best way to educate people about their risks, Saslow said. In the meantime, though, women should at least discuss with their doctor their specific risks for breast cancer, such as their age (risk increases as you get older), race or ethnicity (black women are more likely to die) and having dense breast tissue.

Visit to get the full list of risks.

Twitter: @MonifaThomas1

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.