High risk breast screening program: Empowering women to take control of their cancer risks


by Amy Balis, MD

May 5, 2022

Chances are, you know someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Maybe it even runs in your family and you’re worried about your own risk. Or maybe you’re simply starting to get older and you want to know how to prevent it from happening to you.

While cancer can strike anyone, some people—mostly women, but it’s true that men can get breast cancer too—face a higher risk for breast cancer.

If that’s you, you may benefit from participating in a high-risk breast screening program. Specifically for people who face a higher risk for breast cancer, this program offers advanced screening, surveillance, diagnostic and preventive methods to help you take charge of your health.

Let’s talk about who qualifies as “high risk” and what steps to take if you do.

How do you know if you’re at high risk for breast cancer?

Like most people who undergo breast screening, you likely undergo an annual mammogram without any awareness of carrying additional breast cancer risks. For those of us specializing in the field, this is a tremendous opportunity for early cancer detection.

During your initial screening, you will be asked a brief series of questions designed to “flag” people whose lifetime risk of breast cancer may be over 20%. Should you be flagged, you’ll qualify for a more detailed, high-risk assessment by a genetic specialized nurse navigator.

In addition to your personal health history and that of your family, your data will be matched to predictive risk models developed by the American Cancer Society, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network and others.

The goal is to help people who are identified as high risk by providing the earliest diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

Higher risk factors for breast cancer

  • A family history of breast cancer among your parents, siblings or at least two other close relatives
  • A family history of ovarian cancer
  • Multiple cancers within your family
  • A relative diagnosed with breast cancer before menopause
  • A known mutation, such as BRCA1, BRCA2, TP53 or PTEN in your family
  • An abnormal breast biopsy
  • Prior radiation to the chest

Next steps if you’re at high risk

Should you meet the criteria for increased risk of breast cancer, first, take a deep breath. Being high risk doesn’t mean you’re destined for a cancer diagnosis. But it does mean you should be focused on prevention and getting the right care team on your side.

Next, the high-risk breast program team will provide you with options for further screening, care and education. Recommendations will vary based on your specific risks and needs, but may include:

  • Tailored screening schedule: Some people will qualify for a breast MRI, which is key to detecting smaller and earlier cancers, in addition to their yearly mammogram. You may instead be scheduled for a yearly mammogram, followed in six months by a yearly breast MRI, affording us two times per year to continue ensuring your breast health.
  • Genetic specialist for counseling, possible genetic testing and education
  • Personalized monitoring plan
  • Surgeon referral

The prospect of a breast cancer diagnosis can be scary. But resources like the high-risk breast screening program ensure you’re informed, educated and empowered to take charge of your health for years to come.

If it’s time for your annual mammogram, talk to your doctor or schedule your breast exam today. Keeping up with regular mammograms is one of the best things you can do to stay healthy as you age.

Learn more about our high-risk breast program, including locations and how to get in touch with a patient navigator.

About the Author

Dr. Balis is a breast imager/diagnostic radiologist and medical director of the Women's Imaging Center at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center - Irving.

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