Public Release: 

Simple question from your doctor can help identify your risk for breast cancer

1 out of 7 minority women lack important family history of breast cancer

Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

March 8, 2005 - Having your doctor ask you about your family breast health history can greatly increase the chances of identifying your risk for breast cancer. In a recent study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, researchers found that only 26% out of 1700 women in the Greater Boston area had documentation of their family history of breast cancer. Further data showed that minority women were significantly less likely to have this information asked about or recorded than white women.

"A woman with a family history of breast cancer is at greater risk of developing breast cancer than women without relatives with breast cancer and as such, many guidelines recommend more intense breast cancer screening for women with positive family histories," states Harvey J. Murff, MD, lead researcher for the study.

However, after studying the medical records of almost 2000 women, only 1 in 4 were found to have had this important documentation. Researchers found that "less than 1 in 7 of African-American and Hispanic women less than 40 years of age, a group in which the early identification of risk status could influence screening practice behavior, had documentation concerning familial breast cancer."

Little research has been done to examine how family cancer histories are obtained and utilized in clinical practice. Thus, the study focused on how women were asked about their family histories and if any specific patient characteristics affected whether or not the discussion took place. As disparities were observed between minority and white women, it is suggested that minority women at increased risk for breast cancer may be at particular risk of not being identified.

Overall, the need for more attention to collecting this data is emphasized to benefit high-risk groups. Early identification can lead to receiving a mammography at an early stage or even genetic testing, and avoid discovering breast cancer at already advanced stages. The American Cancer Society suggests breast cancer screenings for women at age 30 who are at increased risk for the disease.

The lack of documentation suggests that primary care providers are infrequently inquiring about breast cancer histories with their patients. However, researchers were unable to determine whether the information was asked about and just not recorded or not inquired about at all. Additional factors that may have an impact on this discussion between patient and doctor may include brevity of patient visits or relevance to the actual ailment for which the patient is being seen.


About the Author

Harvey J. Murff, MD, MPH is currently Staff Physician at Nashville Veterans Affairs Hospital and Assistant Professor in Medicine at Vanderbilt University. He has conducted prior research on the accuracy of family cancer histories and also the adequacy of family history collection practices in primary care. Dr. Murff can be reached for questions and interviews at 615-327-4751 ext 6823 or

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About the Journal of General Internal Medicine

The Journal of General Internal Medicine (JGIM ) is the official scientific publication of the Society of General Internal Medicine, whose mission is to promote improved patient care, research, and education in primary care and general internal medicine. JGIM articles focus on topics such as clinical research, curriculum development, epidemiology, prevention, and health care delivery in general internal medicine.

About the Society of General Internal Medicine

The Society of General Internal Medicine is an international organization of physicians and others who combine caring for patients with educating and/or doing research. The society is dedicated to improving patient care, education, and research in primary care and general internal medicine. For more information visit

About Blackwell Publishing

Blackwell Publishing is the world's leading society publisher, partnering with more than 600 academic and professional societies. Blackwell publishes over 750 journals and 600 text and reference books annually, across a wide range of academic, medical, and professional subjects.

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