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No Link Between Family History and Risk for Younger Women

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Overall, women with a family history of breast cancer have a higher risk of developing the disease compared to women without a family history. Still, for women age 40 to 49, a study found no link between family history and the risk of being diagnosed with invasive breast cancer.

The results were presented at the 2011 annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

Doctors think the link between breast cancer risk and family history is related to aspects of the family's genetics, which make breast cancer more likely to develop. But it's possible that these genes affect the risk of breast cancer more in older, postmenopausal women and not as much in younger, premenopausal women. The study presented at RSNA suggests this might be the case.

Researchers reviewed the family histories of 1,000 women aged 40 to 49 who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The risk of having invasive breast cancer was the same for women with a family history of breast cancer and women without a family history:

  • 64% of the women with no family history of breast cancer were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer.
  • 63% of the women with a family history of breast cancer were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer.

The results suggest that family history may not be very helpful in determining breast cancer risk for younger women.

These results could help inform the ongoing debate about whether regular breast cancer screening should start at age 40 or at age 50. Experts who think routine screening mammograms don't make sense until age 50 have suggested that screening should be done only selectively in younger women at high risk. These experts says that a family history is one important way to determine who is at high risk for breast cancer.

But the RSNA study suggests that screening based on family history doesn't make sense for women younger than 50. It also suggests that the current U.S. guidelines for routine mammograms every year (or less ideally, every other year) in ALL women age 40 and older still make sense. For women with higher-than-average breast cancer risk, a more aggressive breast cancer screening plan may be needed.

For more information about breast cancer screening visit the Breastcancer.org Mammograms pages.

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