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Breast Cancer Risk: Perception vs. Reality

Study: Nearly 90% of Women Overestimate Breast Cancer Risk
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Numbers Don't Give Context

Ubel tells WebMD that the findings have implications both for researchers and for doctors charged with educating patients about breast cancer risk. He says that asking them to estimate their own risk can help put the actual risk in perspective.

"We shouldn't just throw numbers at patients without giving them some context for those numbers," he says. "If you tell a patient that her breast cancer risk is [13%], that still may sound like a high risk to her. But if they guess a much higher number, as most do, [13%] is reassuring."

The University of Michigan study is not the first to show that women tend to overestimate their breast cancer risk. In a survey conducted by the American Cancer Society in 2001, nearly half of the women questioned believed that their risk was between 30% and 50%.

Many also wrongly believed women in their 30s and 40s are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than older women.

Only about 18% of breast cancer diagnoses occur in women in their 40s, while about 77% of women with breast cancer are older than 50 when they are diagnosed, according to ACS figures.

Researcher Lisa M. Schwartz, MD, says cancer awareness campaigns often scare people with numbers that highlight the magnitude of cancer risk but provide little context.

Schwartz and colleagues with Dartmouth Medical School's VA Outcomes Group created a series of cancer risk-assessment charts to help people understand their true risk of dying from the disease.

While it is true that 40,000 women die from breast cancer each year, the risk of dying in your 40s and even 50s remains quite small, she notes. A 40-year-old woman who has never smoked, for example, has a 0.2% chance of dying from breast cancer before she is 50, and her risk will be less than 1% until she reaches age 70.

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