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Sharp Health News

Helping women understand breast cancer risk

Oct. 11, 2016

Helping women understand breast cancer risk

All women are at risk for breast cancer, but certain factors greatly increase the likelihood of some women getting the disease. With this in mind, the American Cancer Society recommends extra monitoring for women who are more likely to develop breast cancer in their lifetimes.

But how can women find out their risk? Online questionnaires can offer some insight, but these tools are often too limiting, or too complicated for non-health care professionals to understand.

A program at Sharp Memorial Hospital aims to take out the guesswork. Women who receive mammograms at Sharp Memorial Outpatient Pavilion can learn if they are at a higher risk of developing the disease.

At her mammogram appointment, a woman answers a series of detailed questions about factors known to increase breast cancer risk, including her age, body mass index, and personal and family health histories.

A sophisticated computer program uses the responses to calculate her unique breast cancer risk. The calculation is based on the Tyrer-Cuzick model, considered one of the most accurate and comprehensive risk-assessment tool for predicting breast cancer.

Results are sent to a woman’s doctor, along with recommendations for how to manage a lifetime risk greater than 20 percent — the threshold at which the American Cancer Society recommends extra monitoring and prevention strategies. About 10 percent of women have been found to be high-risk since the program began in early 2016.

“We hope this information leads to important conversations between a woman and her doctor,” says Dr. Christina Casteel, medical director of the Breast Health Center at Sharp Memorial Hospital. “A long-term surveillance plan, customized specifically to each woman, is the best tool to catch breast cancer early in patients with increased risk.”

That plan may include more frequent mammograms and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. Women can also benefit from counseling about medications, nutrition, exercise, genetic testing and mental health, Casteel says.

“The sooner women know their risk, the more empowered they are to make change toward prevention,” she says.

Risk factors for breast cancer include:

  1. Being a woman – Although men can have breast cancer, this disease is about 100 times more common in women.
  2. Age – Your risk of breast cancer increases as you get older.
  3. Genetics – Mutations in inherited genes such as the BRCA1 or BRCA2 can produce a lifetime breast cancer risk as high as 80 percent.
  4. Family history – A woman’s risk for breast cancer is higher if she has close blood relatives who’ve had the disease.
  5. Personal history – A woman with a history of breast cancer or other breast conditions may have a higher risk.
  6. Race and ethnicity – The rates of developing breast cancer vary among various racial and ethnic groups.
  7. Menstruation – Women who start their periods before age 12 or go through menopause after age 55 are at increased risk due to longer exposure to the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
  8. Birth control – Certain forms of birth control have been found to raise breast cancer risk.
  9. Pregnancy – Having a first pregnancy after age 30 or never being pregnant can increase risk.
  10. Dense breasts – About 40 percent of women have dense breasts, meaning their breasts have more glandular and fibrous tissue and less fatty tissue.
  11. Lifestyle factors – Drinking alcohol, being overweight and lack of physical activity are linked to an increased risk.

Women who are concerned about their risk of breast cancer are encouraged to speak with their doctor.

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Casteel about high-risk breast cancer for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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