Browser does not support script.
Skip to main content
Find out how we produce our information|
A family history of breast cancer is usually when several members of your family have had breast cancer or ovarian cancer, or if you’ve had a relative diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age.
We have separate information on the National Breast Screening Programme| for women with no family history of breast cancer.
Even if you have one or more relatives who have or have had breast cancer, it does not necessarily mean that breast cancer runs in your family. More than one woman in a family can develop breast cancer by chance. There’s more information about family history and risk later on in this section.
We hope this information answers your questions. It should ideally be read with our general information about breast screening. If you have any further questions, you can ask the staff at your breast clinic.
Breast screening is a way of finding breast cancers| early, when they are too small for you or your doctor to see or feel.
In the UK, around 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer at some time in their life. For most women, increasing age is the greatest risk factor for developing breast cancer. This is one reason why breast screening begins at 50 for most women in the UK.
In the UK, women aged 50-70 are invited to attend breast screening every three years as part of the NHS Breast Screening Programme (NHSBSP). Each country within the UK has its own screening programme. In England, the age range for breast screening is being extended to 47–73 by the end of 2016.
If you are 70 or over, you're not automatically invited for breast screening. But you can make your own appointments| for free mammograms (breast x-ray) every three years if you wish.
Large research trials have shown that regular screening for younger women is generally less effective than it is for older women. Because of this, younger women aren’t routinely offered breast screening on the NHS Breast Screening Programme in the UK.
One main reason for this is that mammograms (breast x-rays), which are used for screening, are less effective at detecting breast cancer in women who haven’t reached menopause. The menopause happens, on average, around the age of 50.
After menopause the breast tissue is less dense, which makes mammograms easier to read and the results more reliable.
Younger women that have an increased risk of breast cancer because of family history are generally offered screening with a newer type of mammogram called a digital mammogram. This is better at detecting changes in denser breast tissue (see section on mammography).
Most women with a family history of breast cancer are not in a high-risk group and don’t ever develop breast cancer. Even if you are in a high-risk group, it doesn’t mean that you will develop breast cancer.
If you think you may be at increased risk of breast cancer because of your family history, talk to your GP about this. Your GP can refer you to a breast clinic for an assessment. Some women with a relative having treatment for breast cancer may be advised to come for screening by their relative’s consultant.
The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE|) is an independent body that advises doctors on health prevention and treating certain conditions. NICE has developed guidelines on the screening of women with an increased risk of developing breast cancer because of their family history.
To estimate your risk, a nurse or doctor at the clinic will talk to you about your family history. They may use questionnaires or computer programs as part of your assessment. NICE guidelines group women into either moderate risk or high risk. The type of screening recommended will depend on your level of risk. If risk assessment shows you have the same risk as the average population, you’ll be advised to have the usual screening through the NHS breast screening programme.
At your assessment you’ll be asked about:
There’s more information about this in our section on cancer genetics|.
The following lists are only some examples taken from NICE guidelines so they’re not exhaustive.
Where more than one relative is mentioned, all relatives must be on the same side of the family and must be blood relatives.
NICE guidelines say that moderate-risk breast cancer includes women with one of the following in their family history:
NICE guidelines say that high-risk breast cancer includes women with one of the following in their family history:
Fewer than 1 in 100 women are at high risk of developing breast cancer because of their family history. If you’re assessed as having a high risk, you’ll be offered a referral to a specialist genetics service. This means you can have a more detailed assessment about a possible genetic link in the family.
There are other factors that may influence your risk of familial breast cancer.
For example, if you have:
You'll be asked about factors like this in your family during your consultation. It's also important to let your breast care team know if there are any changes in your family history as time goes on, as this may change your risk assessment.
Your breast care team will talk to you about the most appropriate screening for your individual needs. This will depend on your level of risk, how old you are and what is right for your individual situation. You will be given information about the screening methods that are used.
You may be offered mammograms, MRI, or a combination of both.
This is the most commonly used test for screening. A mammogram| is a low-dose x-ray of the breast| tissue. It tests for early breast cancer. You'll need to remove your clothes from the top part of your body, including your bra. The radiographer will then position you so that each breast, in turn, is placed on the x-ray machine and gently but firmly compressed (squashed) against a flat, clear, plastic plate. The breast tissue needs to be compressed to keep the breast still, and to get the clearest picture with the lowest amount of radiation possible. Most women find this uncomfortable, and for some women it is painful for a short time while the breast is being compressed. You'll need to stay still for less than a minute while the picture is being taken. Usually two mammograms are taken of each breast from different angles.
The standard way of taking mammograms uses x-ray images of the breast. A newer technique called digital mammography uses computer imaging. Studies have shown that digital mammograms are better at finding cancers in younger women and women who have denser breast tissue.
Women under 50, who are having mammography because of an increased risk of breast cancer, are recommended to have digital mammography whenever possible.
MRI scanning is used for screening some women who are under 50 and at very high risk.
MRI scans use magnetism instead of x rays to build up a detailed picture of the breasts. During the scan, you'll be asked to lie very still on a couch inside a long tube for about 30 minutes. It's painless but can be uncomfortable, and some women feel a bit claustrophobic during the scan. It's also noisy, but you'll be given earplugs or headphones.
Some women are given an injection of dye into a vein in the arm, but this does not usually cause any discomfort.
NICE guidelines recommend women with a moderate or high risk of breast cancer because of family history:
After 50, most women are usually offered a mammogram every three years as part of the NHS breast screening programme. This is because breast cancer is easier to find in women over 50, and breast cancers are usually slower-growing in this age group. For women over 50, MRI scans are not routinely widely available for breast cancer screening.
There are plans to include screening for women at increased risk because of family history in the NHS breast screening programme. Because of this and results of the FH01 study, screening advice for women in this group may change. Another study called the FH02 is looking at screening for women aged 35-39 with a family history of breast cancer.
If you're worried about your risk of breast cancer, you can use our online tool OPERA|, where you answer questions about your family history and print out a personal assessment. If a risk is identified, you can take the print-out to your GP.
It's difficult to face any uncertainty about your health. Making decisions about screening can be difficult and you may feel anxious| or frightened. Your breast care team will be able to support you, and specialist counsellors are available in some centres. Our cancer support specialists| can also give you details of helpful organisations| throughout the UK.
This information has been compiled using information from a number of reliable sources, including:
With thanks to: Professor Stephen Duffy, Professor of Breast Screening; Dr Mark Sibbering, Consultant Breast Surgeon; and the people affected by cancer who reviewed this edition. Reviewing information is just one of the ways you could help when you join our Cancer Voices network|.
Content last reviewed: 1 January 2013
Next planned review: 2015
For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just want someone to talk to, ask Macmillan.
If you have any questions about Macmillan we would love to hear from you| .
You can also follow us| on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr or YouTube.
© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
what are these?|