Knowing Your Risk for Breast Cancer

Jennifer Plichta, M.D.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As with all types of cancer, early detection is the best defense against this disease that will affect about 1 in 8 women in the U.S. Knowing your personal risk is the first step in managing your breast health. It can identify steps that may potentially prevent you from developing breast cancer or if you do get it, help catch and treat it early.

Several factors can affect your breast cancer risk, including age, weight, family history, breast density, hormone replacement therapy, genetic mutations and more. A comprehensive breast cancer risk assessment takes all these factors into consideration and determines if you may benefit from more frequent or advanced screening, preventive medication or genetic testing.

Our breast experts recommend that women have a breast cancer risk assessment no later than age 39 or 40. If there is a family history of breast cancer, it may be helpful to be assessed at an even younger age. Primary care providers can perform the risk assessment, or they may refer patients to a breast specialist.

The Duke Breast Risk Assessment Clinic offers in-depth evaluations and customized breast care plans. Jennifer Plichta, MD, MS, is the director of the clinic and a breast surgical oncologist at Duke Health.

“Women at increased risk for breast cancer should know they have options beyond regular mammograms,” she explains. “The comprehensive risk assessment our team of skilled clinicians provides is a critical first step in determining their level of risk and creating the best management strategy personalized just for them.”


 Dr. Plichta answers some questions about the importance of knowing your risk:

What happens during a breast cancer risk assessment?

A breast cancer risk assessment will delve into your family and health history. Be prepared to share your family’s history of cancer with your doctor – including the types of cancer experienced, as well as the ages at which they were diagnosed. This includes family members of both your mother and father. You will also be asked about your own health history. We use all of this information to determine your risk of breast cancer and to make recommendations on next steps.

Why is a breast cancer risk assessment so important?

A breast cancer risk assessment can identify women who may need additional screening and/or referrals for additional evaluation. Studies show that about one out of every five women who undergo routine mammograms fall into a higher risk category and may benefit from breast MRIs or other types of imaging to detect breast cancer at the earliest possible stage. This comprehensive evaluation can also identify women who should be tested for a genetic mutation that increases their risk of developing breast and other types of cancer.

How can a breast cancer risk assessment personally benefit me?

A personalized breast care plan is important for women who are at higher risk of developing breast cancer because each individual has different needs. For example, a woman with a family history or genetic risk factors for breast cancer should be evaluated and managed differently than a woman whose breast cancer risk is influenced by environmental or lifestyle risk factors, such as weight, diet or hormone replacement therapy.

How can I get a breast cancer risk assessment?

Your primary care doctor can perform a breast cancer risk assessment during your annual physical. However, depending on your personal and family history, he or she may refer you to a breast specialist. If you would like to be seen in the Duke Breast Risk Assessment Clinic, call 919-660-9672.



Jennifer K. Plichta, MD, MS is a Surgical Oncologist who specializes in breast cancer. She sees patients at Davis Ambulatory Surgical Center, Duke Breast Risk Assessment Clinic and Duke Cancer Center. 

Learn more about Dr. Plichta.