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How to Calculate a Woman’s Risk of Getting Breast Cancer

Getting Breast Cancer
Getting Breast Cancer

A number of formulas have been developed over the years to calculate what a woman’s chances might be of developing breast cancer. In the past, most of these methods have been based on a woman’s family history, personal biopsy history, age, when menstruation began, and a few other variables. And, though none of these methods is perfect, each technique provides a guesstimate of sorts, some more useful than others.

Can healthier lifestyles reduce breast-cancer risk?

Little research has been published about how much a woman’s risk might be reduced if she were to adopt a healthier lifestyle and improve her overall health. (Conversely, no studies have tried to factor in how much risk is added by unhealthy habits.) So far, scientists haven’t been able to predict how positive lifestyle changes might affect a woman’s risk of breast cancer.

Now a study has been published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute by scientists who are tackling the problem of measuring how much a woman will be able to reduce her risk of breast cancer if she makes particular healthy lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, drinking less alcohol, and exercising more. Great!

Yes, they can!

The study, funded by the National Cancer Institute, did indeed show that this new risk model was able to predict–in quantifiable amounts–how changes in the more modifiable risk factors would reduce the absolute risk of developing breast cancer. For instance:

  • For women age 65 who make lifestyle changes, the average risk reduction across 20 years was 1.6 percent.
  • Among women with a positive family history of breast cancer, risk reduction was 3.2 percent.
  • And among woman with the greatest number of non-modifiable risk factors, risk reduction was 4.1 percent.

Elderly women don’t gain the same degree of benefit from making lifestyle changes as younger women do, because younger women usually haven’t been pursuing unsafe lifestyle habits (e.g., smoking and obesity) for as long. Note too, that even women in families with a positive family history–not a breast cancer gene, mind you, but a family history–can reduce their risk.

A small percentage = a big difference

You might not think these numbers are very large, but in a general population of 1 million women, even a 1.6 percent absolute risk reduction amounts to 16,000 fewer cases of breast cancer–and you might be among those 16,000!

In contrast, based on this most recent model, a 3.2 percent reduction in a higher risk group–say, postmenopausal women with a family history–amounted to only 2,560 fewer cases.

This new model, which you will no doubt be hearing more about in the coming months, is the first of its kind. It will serve as a catalyst not only for developing even more sophisticated predictors, but also for promoting healthy living as a way to reduce risk.


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