October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Assess your risk now with this handy online tool. (Photo: Getty Images)
Scientists have created a new online calculator to help predict if you’ll develop breast cancer in the near future.
The calculator involves just six questions based on your age, ethnicity and race, family history of breast cancer, whether you’ve had a breast biopsy, and your breast density. It’s only applicable to women between the ages of 35 and 74, and takes about a minute to complete.
The calculator was tested using data from more than 1.1 million women, aged 35 to 74. The results were published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
The study determined that the calculator accurately estimates a woman’s risk for breast cancer by using her breast density information, as well as diagnoses of benign breast disease (non-cancerous disorders that can affect the breasts).
Charlotte Gard, PhD, an assistant professor at New Mexico State University and a consultant at the Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium, which created the calculator, tells Yahoo Health that the new tool is the only one to use breast density and biopsy information.
Here’s why that matters: According to the American Cancer Society, women with dense breast tissue have a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer than those with less dense breasts. Dense breast tissue also can make it more difficult for radiologists to see cancer during a mammogram.
“Our research found that, after age, breast density was the most powerful predictor of breast cancer on a population basis,” calculator co-creator Jeffrey A. Tice, MD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “Obviously the BRCA mutation is a much stronger risk factor, but so few women have it that it doesn’t help us sort out other women who are at risk.”
While breast density is important, Tice says a lot of practitioners haven’t been sure how to use that in a quantifiable way.
Breast biopsies — even those that don’t find cancer — can also offer valuable information in determining a woman’s future risk, Maggie DiNome, MD, director of the Margie Petersen Breast Center at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Health.
When a patient hears that a biopsy is benign and they don’t require treatment, they often think the results aren’t important, she says. But DiNome notes that biopsies can indicate whether the breast tissue is growing or multiplying in a way that makes a woman more susceptible to developing breast cancer — even if the results are currently benign.
The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be about 231,840 new cases of invasive breast cancer this year, and more than 40,000 deaths from the disease. It’s the second leading cause of cancer death in women, after lung cancer.
Interested in the test? You can take it here. (To get an accurate assessment, you’ll need to have had a mammogram in advance and know your breast density as a result.)
The results are pretty straight-forward and will tell you your risk of developing breast cancer in the next five and 10 years, as well as your risk compared to women with the same race and ethnicity.
The test was designed for health professionals, but Tice acknowledges that other people will want to take it, too.
“We hope it can give women a realistic sense of their risk for breast cancer in the short term,” he says. Tice also notes that it may help alleviate some fears since “there are many women who think their risk is very high,” even though it may not be.
Karthik Ghosh, MD, an internist and head of the breast diagnostic clinic at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. (which validated the calculator under the Mayo Mammography Health Study), tells Yahoo Health that women will only benefit from knowing their risks. Among other things, it can help them determine whether they should take risk-reducing medications like tamoxifen, raloxifene, and exemestane, which also have side effects.
But Ghosh warns that women shouldn’t just rely on the calculator to determine whether they should see a doctor. “Women [should] seek immediate medical attention for breast symptoms, irrespective of their risk status,” she says.
Read This Next: What It Means To Have ‘Dense Breasts’ — And Why It Matters