University of California San Francisco
Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

Mammograms Bad for Young Women with Breast Cancer Genes?

By Jeffrey Norris, UCSF Science Cafe | March 17, 2009

Mammography is widely used to screen for tumors in young women -- even women in their 20s -- who inherit a genetic mutation that confers a very high risk for breast cancer. But new research now suggests that exposing the youngest of these women to even small doses of radiation via screening mammograms might do more harm than good.

A research study that appeared in the Feb. 4, 2009, issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) concluded that among these high-risk women, annual mammograms are unlikely to be beneficial until age 35.

Mary Beattie, MD, a primary care physician at UCSF Women's Health and director of clinical research for the UCSF Cancer Risk Program, says the study is getting a lot of attention and may prove to be quite influential.

"This may result in a change in medical practice to benefit a small, but very important subset of women who are at high risk," she says. "The researchers concluded that starting mammograms when a woman is in her 20s or early 30s could be harmful." Screening via breast MRI exams may be more appropriate for this population, according to Beattie.

The mutations in question occur in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Women who carry deleterious mutations in one of these genes have up to an 80 percent likelihood of being diagnosed with breast cancer over the course of a lifetime. Breast cancer in these women often arises at very early ages.

Read more at Jeffrey Norris, UCSF Science Cafe