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Observations Medicine and the Media

How useful are lifetime risks of disease?

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 16 February 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1046
  1. Margaret McCartney, general practitioner, Glasgow
  1. margaretmccartney{at}

Figures claiming that the lifetime risk of breast cancer is 1 in 8 were all over the press last week. But the meaning of lifetime risk may be more complex than it at first seems, says Margaret McCartney

The UK media, including the BMJ enthusiastically covered the charity Cancer Research UK’s recent figures about the incidence of breast cancer (BMJ 2011;342:d808, doi:10.1136/bmj.d808). But just how useful was this latest round of publicity about risk of breast cancer?

Under the headline “1 in 8 women will get breast cancer as lifestyle blamed for a huge rise in cases,” the tabloid newspaper the Daily Mail reported that “One in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime and the rate is rising, alarming figures show.” The BBC’s website ran with much the same headline: “One in eight women will get breast cancer, charity says,” and reported that “Dr Rachel Greig, senior policy officer at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said the figures were a wake-up call and should not be ignored.”

The press release responsible, from Cancer Research UK, was headed, “One woman in eight will get breast cancer,” and read, “The lifetime risk of getting breast cancer has risen from one woman in nine to one in eight—according to Cancer Research UK. New figures published today on World Cancer …

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