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The NHS runs specific services for women with a family history of breast cancer. If you have a confirmed family history, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of breast cancer and to ensure that, if you do develop the disease, this is picked up early.
Detecting breast cancer early
Being breast aware
It is important for all women to be breast aware, regardless of their family history. This simply means knowing what your breasts look and feel like normally, being on the lookout for any unusual changes and getting them checked out by your doctor.
Breast screening from an earlier age
Breast cancer in your family may increase your risk of developing the disease at a younger age. This means you might be able to have breast screening before you reach 50 – the age when you would normally start receiving invites from the NHS.
Breast screening won’t prevent breast cancer, but it may spot the disease before symptoms become detectable through other means.
The age at which you can begin NHS breast screening and the type of screening you have (mammography and/or magnetic resonance imaging) will depend upon:
- your age
- your level of risk
There are also some differences in entitlements between England, Wales and Scotland. Your family history or genetics service will be able to explain the screening that is available to you, as well as its risks and benefits.
Managing your risk
If you are at increased risk of breast cancer due to your family history, there may be steps you can take to reduce your risk, including making changes to your lifestyle.
Some women at high risk of developing breast cancer decide to have risk-reducing surgery. This is not suitable for everyone and can be a difficult decision to make. Before having risk-reducing surgery, a woman will discuss it with her clinical team. Things to discuss include surgery options, the benefits and risks, support available and breast reconstruction.
There are two types of surgery that can reduce the risk of developing breast cancer for women at high risk: mastectomy and oophorectomy.
A mastectomy is the surgical removal of breast tissue. For women with a strong family history of breast cancer, having a risk-reducing mastectomy greatly reduces the risk of breast cancer.
An oophorectomy is the surgical removal of a woman’s ovaries. The Fallopian tubes should be removed at the same time. Having this procedure reduces the risk of breast cancer significantly in women with a strong family history who have not been through the menopause. It will also reduce their risk of ovarian cancer.
Women at increased risk of developing breast cancer can now also be offered the risk-reducing drugs tamoxifen and raloxifene. These have been shown to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer in women with a family history of the disease. Your family history or genetics service can let you know whether either of these drugs may be suitable for you, and provide information on their risks and benefits.
Information last reviewed: 12 August 2013