New Mammography Study Reveals Mixed Awareness on Breast Cancer Risks

In a new survey that examined perceptions of breast cancer risk among more than 1,800 women who had a recent mammogram, 65 percent noted that being overweight or obese was a greater risk factor than breast density, and over a quarter of those interviewed noted they were not aware that they could reduce their breast cancer risk.

Mixed perceptions and awareness about breast cancer risk factors such as family history, breast density and whether one could reduce breast cancer risk were some of the findings from a new study looking at perceptions of breast cancer among women who had a recent mammogram.

The study, published earlier today in JAMA Network Open, was largely based on a telephone survey of 1,858 women between 40 to 76 years of age, who had a mammogram in the two years prior to the survey, had no history of breast cancer and had heard of breast density. In a subset of the study, researchers also did qualitative interviews with 61 of the survey respondents.

Here are some of the findings from the study.

1. Ninety-three percent of the survey respondents (1,706) indicated that a family history of breast cancer was a stronger risk factor than breast density for future breast cancer despite reported estimates that have noted a 1.2 to 4 times higher risk depending on the degree of breast density in comparison to a doubling of risk for those with a first-degree family history of breast cancer. The researchers also noted that women without a family history of breast cancer “believed they were safe or had limited risk based on this factor alone,” according to the study. The study authors suggested that an emphasis on family history and genetic risk factors in popular media and perhaps a lack of asking patients in primary care offices about breast cancer risk factors beyond family history may contribute to some of the patient perceptions voiced in the study.

“Frequent health messaging around family history and breast cancer risk may play a role in how this sample of women perceived their own breast cancer risk,” wrote study co-author Christine M. Gunn, Ph.D., an assistant professor with the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, and colleagues.

(Editor’s note: For related content, see “What a New Study Reveals About Breast Density Awareness” and “DeepHealth Gets FDA Nod for AI Mammography Software that Assesses Breast Density.”)

2. Sixty-five percent of the survey respondents (1,188) said being obese or overweight was a greater risk factor for breast cancer than breast density.

3. Slightly more than half of the survey respondents (52 percent or 957 women) indicated that breast density was a greater risk factor than not having children. Researchers also noted that a higher percentage of Black women and Hispanic women (58 percent in each group) rated breast density as a higher risk factor than not having children in contrast to 45 percent of Asian women and 48 percent of White women.

4. When asked about actions to reduce breast cancer risk, the researchers noted that many of those interviewed referred to mammograms and self-examinations of breasts as prevention strategies. Interviewees also noted exercise, dietary changes, smoking cessation and limiting alcohol but Gunn and colleagues said there was “less certainty about the direct effect on their breast cancer risk.”

5. The researchers also noted that 28 percent of the 61 interviewees (17) indicated a lack of awareness on actions they could take to mitigate breast cancer risk.

“Women may benefit from general guidance and information about cancer prevention strategies, such as tools that can help patients understand overall cancer risk and prevention options,” noted Gunn and colleagues.

The researchers added that partnerships between primary care and radiology could be beneficial to bolster knowledge of preventive measures as well as supplemental imaging options in this patient population.