Breast screening can't prevent breast cancer, but can help to detect it at an earlier stage. This increases the chances of successful treatment. Screening is usually done using breast x-rays (mammograms) and sometimes with MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans.
The type of screening you will be offered will depend on your estimated level of risk and your age.
At 50, all women in the UK, regardless of their personal risk, are offered regular breast screening. This is currently being extended to include all women aged 47 or over. If you're estimated to have a raised or high risk of breast cancer, you'll be offered breast screening with mammograms from the age of 40. NICE recommends that women at raised or high risk are offered yearly mammograms between the ages of 40 and 49.
In the UK, screening with mammograms has not been recommended for women younger than 40 because:
- Mammograms are not as effective (the pictures aren’t as clear) in younger women, as their breast tissue is denser than that of older women.
- There is a theoretical risk of the radiation doses (resulting from having many mammograms) causing cancer – for women over 40, doctors believe that this risk is outweighed by the benefit of detecting breast cancer earlier.
Another type of test sometimes used for screening women at high risk of breast cancer is an MRI scan. MRI scans use magnetism rather than radiation to detect changes in the breasts.
MRI scans aren't routinely used to screen women for breast cancer. However, NICE recommends the use of MRI breast screening in young women between 30 and 49 years who are at very high risk (for example, women who have one of the breast cancer susceptibility genes). MRI has been shown to be more sensitive tests than mammograms in this group of women.
Your consultant or genetic counsellor will be able to tell you if MRI screening is available in your area, and whether you meet the risk criteria to justify having these scans.
You might be very worried about your breast cancer risk, but find that you are not eligible for regular breast screening before the age of 50. Some women in this situation may consider paying for regular screening tests from private healthcare companies. But regular mammograms in the private sector may not be the right option for you, even if you’re very worried.
In this situation, it's best to speak to a breast care nurse or your genetic counsellor about why you are worried and the things you can do.