Campus & Community

Determining Your Risk for Cancer

2 min read

The first Web site in the country where you can get a personalized estimate of your risk for various cancers, together with advice on how to lower that risk, is now available to everyone for free.

Harvard University’s Center for Cancer Prevention launched the site yesterday, Jan. 19, at Logging on to the site offers a personalized risk assessment for breast, colon, lung, and prostate cancer after you answer a few questions.

Once that assessment is given, you are presented with different behaviors that can reduce your risk. When you choose any or all of these strategies, you see how much each would lower your chances of getting that cancer.

When I checked the site risk for colon cancer, for example, I first estimated my risk for the disease as “average” on a multiple-choice scale. After that, I answered a half-dozen clearly asked questions about weight, diet, exercise, alcohol consumption, and vitamin use.

I was pleasantly surprised when the virtual diagnosis rated my risk as “substantially lower than average,” or a 3 percent chance of getting colon cancer in a lifetime.

The site then informed me that I could reduce my risk even more by cutting down on red meat and alcohol.

A 48-year-old female friend estimated her risk as “lower than average,” but her assessment came up “average.” Unsatisfied with the answer, she checked for risk-reducing behaviors. One was to take a daily multivitamin containing folate, another to exercise more.

She now takes such a multivitamin daily, and is doing exercises she can conveniently do.

“We estimate that 50 percent of all cancer can be prevented when people take [such] basic steps to reduce their risk,” says Graham Colditz, director of education at the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention and professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School. The four cancers on the site represent about 50 percent of the 1.2 million cancers diagnosed in the United States each year.

Updated versions of the web site will include eight additional cancers: ovarian, cervical, uterine, bladder, kidney, stomach, pancreatic, and melanoma.