Research and data

Predicting breast cancer risk in Black women

Predicting breast cancer risk in Black women

During Black History Month, it is important to acknowledge and highlight the inequities caused by systemic racism found in the health community and the effects it has had on Black health and wellness. This can be seen in the racial disparities of breast cancer and predicting breast cancer. While the mortality rate for breast cancer has decreased in White women, the overall incidence among Black women has actually increased. To address the equity gap and increased risks Black women face, the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) and Slone Epidemiology Center, have developed a new risk prediction model called the Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS) Breast Cancer Risk Calculator that can help predict the risk of breast cancer earlier.

Since 1995, the Black Women’s Health Study at Boston University works to better understand the causes of the increased rates of many illnesses in Black women, such as hypertension, breast cancer at young ages, diabetes, stroke, and lupus. Enrolling 59,000 women, they recognized the need to better understand the causes of these illnesses and determinants of good health to improve health outcomes and equity amongst this historically excluded population. 

According to the CDC, Black women currently face the highest risk of death due to breast cancer, and 40% more Black women die from breast cancer than white women. According to Penn Medicine, Black women are also three times more at risk for aggressive cancers, like triple-negative breast cancer.

To begin to address these challenges, researchers at BUSPH specifically designed the BWHS Breast Cancer Risk Calculator to help diagnose breast cancer earlier in Black women. There haven’t been many tools designed for predicting breast cancer risk in the Black community. This new risk calculator will help practitioners evaluate cancer risks and start medical interventions earlier than ever before.

What is a risk prediction model?

A prediction model helps primary care providers identify high-risk patients so they can receive increased monitoring, preventative trials, and early intervention. Because prediction models can help patients get diagnosed earlier, they can get treated sooner, reducing severe outcomes like mortality. 

Dr. Julie Palmer, a BUSPH professor of epidemiology and part of the team that developed the new risk prediction model, says:

“US Black women have a disproportionately high rate of breast cancer deaths. Improvement in early detection of breast cancer in this population is critical, especially in young Black women who have not yet reached the ages at which mammographic screening is typically begun.”

Predicting breast cancer risk

According to the Journal of Women’s Health, the lack of breast cancer screening tools could have led to late-stage diagnoses for Black women in the past. But the BWHS Breast Cancer Risk Calculator will help increase earlier diagnosis because of its accuracy in predicting breast cancer risk in this vulnerable population. Researchers studied over 51,000 Black women in the Black Women’s Health Study and tracked them over 15 years to ensure their tool was accurately predicting breast cancer risk. This prediction tool will allow health providers to estimate the likelihood of invasive breast cancer risk for their patients up to five years in the future.

The Journal of Oncology explains:

“The tool uses a woman’s personal medical and reproductive history and the history of breast cancer and prostate cancer among her first-degree relatives (parents, siblings, children) to estimate absolute breast cancer risk—her chance or probability of developing breast cancer in a given period of time.”

Ludovic Trinquart, one of the study’s senior authors and a former BUSPH adjunct associate professor, said, “Women can also use the tool themselves and input their own information to calculate their five-year breast cancer risk.”

Women can find the BWHS Breast Cancer Risk Calculator here. 

According to the BU Slone Epidemiology Center:

 “Although a woman’s risk may be accurately estimated, these predictions do not allow one to say precisely which woman will develop breast cancer. In fact, some women who do not develop breast cancer have higher risk estimates than some women who do develop breast cancer.”

The BWHS Breast Cancer Risk Calculator is a great tool, but Trinquart reminds women to always follow up with a medical professional for monitoring and screening.

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