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The future of breast cancer screening

Breast cancer screening is an important tool for early detection. But what does screening currently look like? And how could it be improved?

Breast cancer screening is an important tool for early detection. And the earlier breast cancer is detected, the better the chance of successful treatment. But what does screening currently look like? And how could it be improved? 

Here, we look at what breast cancer screening looks like now, what it could look like in the future, and how we’re working to improve screening. 

How does screening work now? 

Breast screening uses a breast x-ray, called a mammogram, to look for cancer that may be too small to see or feel. In the UK, women aged 50 to 71 are invited for a mammogram every 3 years, as part of the national breast screening programme. Screening is a vital part of breast cancer detection and diagnosis.  

Although screening techniques having improved, a small number of cancers are still missed. Also, some cancers found through screening won’t develop any further, or will grow so slowly they won’t cause harm. This means that some people may have unnecessary treatment. 

Researchers are working hard to improve screening. So, what could screening look like in the future? And how is the research we’re funding getting us there? 

Breast cancer screening in 2050 

So, let’s imagine how screening could be. Let’s say, in 2050, 2 friends, Kemi and Rachel, are invited for their first NHS screenings. As well as the mammogram, they can have a cheek swab for genetic testing. They’re also asked to complete a questionnaire about their lifestyle and family history of breast cancer. 

After identical appointments, Kemi and Rachel get different results and advice. Kemi learns that she has a higher lifetime risk of breast cancer. She decides to change her lifestyle and take a risk-reducing medication. Rachel, however, finds out she’s among people at lowest risk. She’s offered the choice to be screened less often because of this. 

From two identical appointments, the outcomes are different. It results in more personalised and tailored care, making it more effective and avoiding unnecessary treatment and side effects. 

So, how can we make sure this future becomes a reality? 

Making screening better for the future 

Researchers like Professor Amy Berrington are making this future a possibility. Amy uses information and samples from the Breast Cancer Now Generations Study, a 40-year study following over 113,000 women in her research. The study aims to find why one woman will develop the disease while another won’t. She hopes that we can use it to prevent some cases in the future. By understanding what increases people’s breast cancer risk, we can give better and more accurate advice about how best to reduce this. 

Another researcher we fund, Dr Adam Brentnall, is creating a new way to identify women at a high risk of aggressive types of breast cancer. This will help healthcare professionals offer people at higher risk more information and support and screen them more often. If these people then develop breast cancer, it can then be diagnosed and treated earlier. 

And Dr Jo Waller, King’s College London, is investigating how women would feel about breast cancer screening tailored to their risk. Similar to our scenario with Kemi and Rachel, women at high risk of breast cancer could be screened more often. And women at low risk less often. Jo wants to know women’s thoughts on potentially being classed as having a low, medium or high risk of developing breast cancer. She hopes this could result in fewer breast cancer deaths, whilst preventing women from undergoing treatment they might not need.  

Breast cancer screening is a vital tool to detect the disease at the earliest stages. And researchers are working tirelessly to find ways improve screening, so that people can receive the best possible care.  

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