Younger women with a family history of breast cancer should receive annual mammograms to save thousands of lives, researchers have warned.
According to a study funded by the charity Breast Cancer Now, testing up to 86,000 more women in their mid-30s could catch tumours earlier.
Now research by scientists at the University of Manchester suggests screening should be extended to women aged 35 to 39 to enable early detection and potentially prevent the cancer spreading.
Baroness Morgan of Drefelin, the chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, said changes need to be made to stop women dying from breast cancer.
”With breast cancer still the leading cause of death in women under 50, we need to find ways to identify those most at risk and offer them interventions earlier,” she said.
Baroness Morgan added that because breast cancer can be more aggressive in younger women early intervention may be able to “stop the disease cutting so many women’s lives so heartbreakingly short”.
The research carried out at 34 UK screening centres detected tumours when they were significantly smaller in size, compared with a group of women who were not screened.
Experts who examined data for 2,899 women from 2006 to 2015 also found that earlier screening meant tumours were less likely to have spread to the lymph nodes – a sign that cancer is moving around the body.
The large-scale trial recorded the proportion of tumours detected before they reached 2cm increase from 45 per cent to 80 per cent.
In total, 50 breast cancers were detected in 49 women, of which 35 were invasive tumours.
Breast cancer is the most common cause of death in women under 50 in the UK with around 55,000 women and 350 men diagnosed each year in the UK. Between 5 per cent and 15 per cent of breast cancers are linked to a family history of the illness.
Baroness Morgan described the findings as “an enormous breakthrough”, urging the government to act immediately.
Professor Gareth Evans, the lead author of the study, said the results of the new trial were “very promising” and demonstrated that annual scans are effective in detecting tumours earlier for the younger age group.
He added that overdiagnosis 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.”
An NHS England spokeswoman said possible changes to the screening programme would be considered in an upcoming review.
“Breast cancer survival is at its highest ever and with improved screening a key focus of the NHS long term plan, even more, cancers will be diagnosed earlier,” she added.
Additional reporting by PA
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