Twenty Percent Women Don't Believe Breast Cancer Risk
August 16, 2013

20 Percent Of Women Don’t Believe Their Breast Cancer Risk

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

A new study led by researchers at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center reveals nearly 20 percent of women do not believe their breast cancer risk despite using a tailored risk assessment tool that factors in family history and personal habits. The findings, published in the journal Patient Education and Counseling, were compiled during a larger study looking at how to improve patients’ understanding of risk information.

The majority of women who had trouble believing their risk numbers said they felt the tool did not take into account family history of cancer or their personal health habits. The researchers say the tool did ask relevant questions about the individual’s family and personal history.

“If people don’t believe their risk numbers, it does not allow them to make informed medical decisions,” says Angela Fagerlin, PhD, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and a research scientist at the VA Ann Arbor Center for Clinical Management Research.

Approximately 690 above-average risk women completed a web-based decision aid that included questions about age, ethnicity, personal history of breast cancer, and number of first-degree relatives who had had breast cancer. After completion, the women were told their five-year risk of developing breast cancer, and provided information about prevention strategies.

The participants were asked to recall their risk number after receiving the prevention information. Women who answered incorrectly were asked why, and replies included such things as they forgot, made a rounding error, or they disagreed with the number. The research team, which included scientists from Duke University, Group Health Research Institute, and the Henry Ford Health System, was surprised to find 22 percent of the women who gave an incorrect report said they disagreed with the numbers.

The most common reason given for this disagreement was that their family history made them more or less likely to develop breast cancer than the risk number implied. Many of these women believe because an aunt or father had cancer, their own risk increased. The truth is only first-degree female relatives -such as a mother, sister, or daughter - impact a person’s breast cancer risk. Others who disagreed felt a lack of family history meant their risk should be very low.

One-third of those questioned cited a gut instinct that their risk numbers were just too high or too low. “We’ve put so much fear in people about breast cancer so they feel at high risk,” says Laura D. Scherer, PhD. “We found that many women assumed certain factors should impact their risk, like cancer history in distant or male relatives, but those factors don’t put a woman at increased risk.

“We have a trend toward personalized medicine and individualized medicine, but if people don’t believe their personalized risk numbers, they’re not going to get the best medical care for them,” says Scherer, who is now at the University of Missouri.

This year alone, 234,580 Americans will be diagnosed with breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, and 40,030 will die of the disease.