New research published in journal Genetics in Medicine suggests that scientists have created the most comprehensive method to date to predict an individual’s risk of developing breast cancer.

In the study, researchers at The University of Cambridge created a tool that calculates the risk of developing the disease by combining genetic and lifestyle factors, family history, and a number of other independent factors linked to breast cancer. 

The researchers, funded by Cancer Research UK, expanded an existing risk prediction algorithm that includes information on major genes linked to breast cancer to incorporate more than 300 known genetic indicators associated with breast cancer risk, along with lifestyle and health information such as breast density, age at menopause, alcohol consumption, and use of hormone replacement therapy. 

Individually, these factors have a variable impact on our risk of breast cancer, but considering all of them at once could help build a more comprehensive picture of who is most at risk and who has a particularly low chance of developing the disease.

In the future, it is hoped that tools like this could help determine at what age women are first invited for breast screening or how regularly they are invited to receive it. It could also help people to make decisions about preventative therapy, or other steps they could take to reduce their risk of breast cancer. 

Eluned Hughes, Head of Public Health and Information at Breast Cancer Now, said

This is a promising step towards more tailored approaches to cancer prevention and breast screening, but more research is needed to develop and test this tool before it could begin to influence NHS practice.

Our risk of breast cancer can depend on a combination of our genes, family history, lifestyle, reproductive history and breast density. Incorporating this key information to help predict a woman’s risk using tools like this offers great hope for us to prevent more breast cancers and detect the disease earlier.

We now need to understand how this method compares to existing risk prediction tools, as well as how it could be used in practice to help make decisions about screening or preventive options like tamoxifen. While there is much more research to be done, we are hopeful that using tools like this to help tailor screening to a woman’s individual risk could one day help detect more cases earlier, while enabling those at particularly low risk to avoid unnecessary screening.

In the meantime, we’d encourage anyone who is concerned about their breast cancer risk to speak to their GP. While there are some factors that we can’t change, there are steps everyone can take to reduce their risk of breast cancer, such as exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and drinking less alcohol.