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Do you overestimate breast cancer risk?

A new study has found that most women overestimate their risk of breast cancer. In this study women were asked to estimate their lifetime risk of developing breast cancer and 89 percent of women overestimated their risk, with an average estimate of 46 percent, which is more than three times the actual risk of 13 percent. These findings are from a study conducted by University of Michigan Health System researchers.

"Breast cancer is so commonly in the news, and most of us can think of friends or relatives who have been diagnosed with it. That leads us to overestimate how common it really is. We forget that we know a lot of people with breast cancer because we know a lot of people," says senior study author Peter Ubel, M.D., professor of internal medicine at the U-M Medical School and director of the Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine.

These study results of the study appear in the June issue of the journal Patient Education and Counseling.

The survey population included 356 women. One Half the women were asked to estimate the average woman's lifetime risk of developing breast cancer, and the other half were not asked for an estimate. Both groups then given information on breast cancer risk.

The group that did not estimate risk beforehand was asked whether the 13 percent risk was higher or lower than they had expected. Only 37 percent said the actual risk was lower than they had expected. This compares to 89 percent of women in the other group who initially thought the risk was much higher.

The researchers then asked women in both groups how anxious or relieved the information made them and whether they thought a 13 percent risk was high or low.

The women who did not give an estimate first were more likely to feel anxious about the breast cancer risk information, 25 percent vs. 12 percent of women who gave an estimate first. At the same time, twice as many women who gave an estimate beforehand said they were relieved by the actual risk, 40 percent vs. 19 percent.

"After estimating that 46 percent of women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, when they find out it's actually 13 percent, that seems relatively low and women feel a sense of relief," says lead study author Angela Fagerlin, Ph.D., research investigator in internal medicine at the U-M Medical School and with the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System.

"Doctors need to be in touch with their patients' needs. If a woman is unduly anxious about her risk of breast cancer, and that anxiety is ruining her life, it might help to ask her what she thinks her chance of breast cancer really is. She is likely to overestimate that risk, and now the doctor will have a chance to tell her the true risk and, potentially, put her mind at ease," says Ubel, a staff physician at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System.

At the same time, the researchers stress, overestimating the risk does not diminish the importance of prevention strategies, such as yearly mammograms and monthly breast self exams.

The researchers suggest that this information can be used to help patients who seem particularly concerned about their risk of breast cancer.

Cancer terms:
Tumor: An abnormal growth of cells in one place, giving rise to a mass that can be felt or seen. Example: Mr. A was diagnosed with a small tumor in his brain. This tumor was seen in an MRI that was taken because of severe headache he was having. See cancer terms for more cancer related terms. Do you overestimate breast cancer risk?

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