As we all know, women in the UK are routinely offered breast cancer screening when they reach the age of 50, receiving an invite for further screening every three years until their 71st birthday. And while women who have a family history are invited to have screenings from the age of 40 – and bar a trial the NHS are currently running which involves women aged between 47 and 73 – that’s been a hard and fast rule for a while now.
But according to a study funded by the charity Breast Cancer Now, evidence is pointing towards encouraging even younger women who have a family history of breast cancer to get checked out. According to their findings, cancers were detected sooner when 35 to 39-year-olds at risk had annual mammograms. And while the research team – from the University of Manchester – went to great lengths to point out that more analysis was needed on the risks, costs and benefits of extending the screening programme, they were keen to lean on the government to look into a revised screening programme for younger at-risk groups.
Earlier breast cancer screening – does it work?
The study offered scans to 2,899 women in the 35-to-39 age group who were deemed to have a moderate or high risk of the disease after being referred by a GP to a family history clinic. And the screenings detected 35 invasive breast cancer tumours, most of which were small and identified before they had reached the lymph nodes – a sign that they had not spread around the body. By comparison, in a control group which did not have the screenings, far fewer of the cancers were discovered when they were still small and more had spread to the lymphatic system.
Why does the medical community leave it later to screen, then? Because the general feeling has been that more checks from an earlier age aren’t worth the extra expense for the results it produces and can cause more unnecessary stress than good. But according to Professor Gareth Evans, the lead author of the study, the trial has demonstrated that annual scans for a younger age group are effective in detecting tumours earlier, and overdiagnosis – where people are treated for cancers that are unlikely to prove harmful – was far less likely to be an issue with this younger age group. “For women with a family history, removing a non-invasive tumour so early in their lives is likely to be a cancer preventive,” he claimed.
More screenings = faster results
According to the research team, annual mammograms for at-risk younger women across all four of the UK’s NHS services could mean that up to 86,000 women would be called in for earlier screening.
Seeing as between 5% and 15% of breast cancers are linked to a family history of cancer, a revised screening programme would be a positive step for the treatment of breast cancer in the UK, according to Baroness Delyth Morgan – the chief executive of Breast Cancer Now. “We’ve long known that a family history can define a woman’s risk, and that breast cancer can be more aggressive in younger women,” said Baroness Morgan. A spokesperson for NHS England spokeswoman is in agreement and pointed out that possible changes to the screening programme will be considered in their next review.