Breast screening with a family history of cancer

Women with a family history of breast cancer may start screening tests at a younger age than usual.

Breast screening if you have a higher risk

If your family history or a genetic test shows you have a higher risk of breast cancer, you may be offered breast screening:

  • at a younger age than usual
  • more often than usual.

Which tests you are offered, and how often you have them, depend on your individual risk. Your genetics specialist will talk to you about:

  • the test you will be offered – this could be a mammogram, an MRI scan, or both
  • the age when you will start being offered screening tests
  • how often you will have screening
  • the possible advantages and disadvantages of screening.

The test you are offered depends on:

Mammograms

Mammograms use low-dose x-rays to take pictures of each breast.

Women under 30 are not usually offered mammograms. This is because breast tissue in younger women is denser. There is less fatty tissue, which makes it harder to see a cancer. Younger women are offered an MRI scan instead (see below).

Some women having yearly mammograms eventually change to having routine breast screening every 3 years. This is when they reach the screening age of 50. Other women continue to have more frequent screening with mammograms. It depends on their level of risk. Some women who were previously screened with MRI scans change to screening with mammograms.

MRI scans

An MRI scan uses magnetic waves instead of x-rays to build up a detailed picture of the breasts. MRI scans are often used for younger women. An MRI scan can give a clearer image in women with denser breast tissue. In some women, MRI screening may start in their 20s. This depends on individual risk.

MRI scans can be used alone or with mammograms. MRI scans are used on their own to screen women with:

  • the TP53 gene
  • a high risk of having the TP53 gene.

This is because mammograms are not usually suitable for them.

Breast awareness

It is still very important to check yourself for any possible symptoms of breast cancer in between screening appointments.

If you notice any changes to your breasts, or anything unusual for you, contact your screening unit straight away. Or see your GP for an urgent referral to a breast unit.