In the Know About Breast Cancer Risk

One in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of their lifetime, yet despite the prevalence of the disease, most women don’t fully understand their risk.

Ann-Marie N. Hugh, M.D., FACS, breast surgical oncologist with Meritus Center for Breast Health, believes knowledge is power when it comes to understanding risk factors for developing breast cancer.

In the know

Risk factors, says Dr. Hugh, fall into two categories: modifiable and non-modifiable. You can change your exercise, smoking and alcohol consumption habits, refrain from long-term use of hormone replacement therapy and have children earlier in life. But your age and being a woman are factors beyond your control—and the older we get, the more prone we are to developing cancers of any kind.

“The majority of women who develop breast cancer have no known risk factors, but it’s still important to discuss your risks with your primary care physician to develop a breast cancer screening plan,” says Dr. Hugh.

Knowledge is power

Understanding risk factors allows physicians to establish mammography screening guidelines, and if necessary, take next steps. Breast cancer risk assessment tools such as the Gail model or the Tyrer-Cuzik model calculate whether a woman is at average or high risk for developing breast cancer. The tools look at certain thresholds to determine whether interventions, like chemo prevention medication, is needed to prevent breast cancer.

Women at average risk typically have no family history of breast cancer or genetic mutations and have not received chest radiation early in life to treat diseases such as Hodgkin Lymphoma or non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.

Some imaging centers use breast cancer risk assessment tools before women undergo mammography and share both imaging and risk assessment results with primary care providers.

Be your own advocate

Dr. Hugh believes that all women should start annual mammograms at age 40. She also encourages women to practice self-awareness—monitoring changes in how your breasts look and feel. “Be your own advocate so you can do more,” says Dr. Hugh. More means understanding your risk factors, scheduling annual mammography and seeking expert advice on cancer prevention strategies for you’re at high risk.

For women diagnosed with breast cancer, Dr. Hugh offers hope and another “C” word—cure. With more than 13 years of experience, Dr. Hugh is a fellowship-trained, surgical breast oncologist who works with a team of physicians to diagnose and treat breast cancer in Hagerstown.

October is breast cancer awareness month. Visit and take a 30-second Breast Cancer Answers quiz to understand your personal risk factors and the benefits of early detection.