The Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool puts health in the hands of female patients

BY Kamala Kirk

When Dr. Jennifer Havens’ close friend developed cancer and ultimately died, she realized there had to be a better way to treat cancer.

So, Havens—at the time a scientist and researcher for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Little Rock—moved to Arizona to pursue naturopathic medicine at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine, focusing on oncology.

Now employed by the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine Medical Center in Tempe, Havens uses the Breast Cancer Risk Assessment Tool to help female patients estimate their lifetime risk of developing invasive breast cancer over the next five years and up to age of 90. She’s been using it for two years.

“This is a noninvasive way to estimate a woman’s chance or probability of developing invasive breast cancer in defined age intervals,” Havens says.

“It consists of a series of questions that we ask patients, and we recommend it before scheduling a mammogram. It’s a really good way for women to make the first step in taking control of their health.”

The BCRA Tool is based on the Gail Model, which was developed in 1989 by Dr. Mitchell Gail. It is considered to be the best available instrument to estimate breast cancer risk for early prevention and has been updated and modified throughout the years. A woman’s chance of developing breast cancer is estimated by looking at several different metrics, such as age, race, personal medical and reproductive history, along with family history of breast cancer among first-degree female relatives (mother, sisters and daughters).

“The assessment takes between 10 to 15 minutes and costs $25,” Havens explains. “If patients have any questions, concerns or fears around their breast health, this can take some of the mysticism and fear away. It’s an inexpensive and effective first step for them to take in making sure they maintain good breast health and reduce their risk of breast cancer. For women who have a significant breast cancer history in their family or they’re not sure what their history is, this is a good way to start.”

According to Havens, the tool is most effective in women between the ages of 30 and 49. A patient only needs to complete the assessment once, and it is not intended for women who have previously been diagnosed with breast cancer. While the BCRA Tool can’t predict whether or not a woman will get breast cancer during her lifetime, it does provide the average risk for a group of women with similar risk factors.

According to recent statistics from the National Breast Cancer Foundation, about one in eight women in the United States will develop breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. Aside from skin cancer, breast cancer is the most-common form of cancer in American women, but due to early detection and better screening, death rates from breast cancer have been in decline since 1990.

Havens’ practice focuses on evidence-based, precision complementary and integrative protocols for patients with cancer.

She uses next generation sequencing and multiplatform tumor biomarker analysis to make treatment recommendations that are individually tailored for each patient’s cancer.

She also specializes in pediatric oncology and travels weekly to her clinic in Wisconsin, in addition to continuing her research and teaching at SCNM.

“As long as we have been trying to get ahead of cancer, it’s always 10 steps ahead of us, which fascinates me,” she says.

“Even with technology, we still haven’t scratched the surface. When I came back to SCNM and started teaching, one of the things I noticed that we need more of, particularly in the realm of oncology, is preventative medicine. I wanted to offer the BCRA Tool to get more on the front end of things, because our biggest tool to fight cancer is early diagnosis.”

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