If you’ve been affected by the breast screening failure, you’ll receive a letter from the NHS. If you’ve got questions about the letter, we may just have the answer here…
What’s breast screening and who’s it for?
Breast screening involves having regular x-rays of your breasts – called mammograms – to look for the earliest signs of breast cancer. The earlier breast cancer is detected, the easiest it can be to treat, which is why breast screening is estimated to prevent 1,300 deaths from breast cancer every year in the UK.
All women in the UK are invited to breast screening every three years between the ages of 50-70. They get their first breast screening appointment between the ages of 49-53 and should then be invited to seven breast screening appointments, with their last being between the ages of 68-71.
After that, women won’t be automatically invited, but can still attend every three years by booking their own appointment through their local breast clinic or by talking to their GP.
So, what’s happened and who’s affected?
Last week, the Health Secretary announced that, due to a technical problem, hundreds of thousands of women in England had not been sent their final screening invitation, which women should receive between the ages of 68-71.
This means women may have only been invited to six breast screening appointments, rather than the seven they should have been invited to.
If you get a letter in the post by the end of May, this means you were affected. If you don’t, it’s likely you weren’t, unless you’re not currently registered with a GP. If that’s the case, you can call the NHS helpline on 0800 169 2692 to find out more.
Now I’ve got the letter, what should I do to get a screening appointment?
This all depends on how old you are now. If you’re under 72, then you don’t need to do anything (unless you’ve moved house or GP since your last breast screening appointment). You’ll be getting a catch-up screening appointment in the post within the next six months. This means you’ll have been invited to all seven appointments. When you get the appointment, we’d encourage you to attend.
If you’ve moved house or GP since your last screening appointment, you’ll need to call the NHS helpline - 0800 169 2692 - to book an appointment.
If you’re currently aged 72-79, you won’t automatically be sent a catch-up breast screening appointment, but you’ll still be entitled to one if you’d like it. The letter will give you a helpline number to call to make you an appointment, if you’d like to.
I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer since I was 71, what does this mean for me?
If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer since you were 71, you understandably have a lot of questions.
The letter states that experts say that in many cases missing a single breast screen at around 70 years of age is unlikely to make a significant difference to the course of a woman’s breast cancer diagnosis.
Although there is currently good evidence that attending breast screening between the ages of 50-70 reduces deaths from breast cancer, because screening can pick up breast cancer in its earliest stages, meaning that it can be treated successfully before it spreads.
However, the benefits of screening above the age of 70 are not yet known. While breast cancer risk increases with age, when you get older you’re less likely to develop aggressive breast cancers, which benefit most from being picked up and treated as early as possible.
This means that if you’re diagnosed with breast cancer when you’re in your 70s with a less-aggressive breast cancer, the final breast screening appointment might not have affected your treatment.
Additionally, some people have argued that your risk of being diagnosed with a screen-detected cancer that may not cause problems in your lifetime is likely to be higher in this age group.
It is important to remember that breast screening has risks as well as benefits, but the evidence suggests that it’s more beneficial to be screened.
If you need some emotional support at this time, you can call the Breast Cancer Care Helpline on 0808 800 6000 or Macmillan Cancer Support on 0808 808 00 00.
What else should I be doing?
Once you’ve had your catch-up appointment, you can book your own screening appointment every three years if you’d like. Just give your local breast screening clinic a call or talk to your GP.
It’s also important that you continue to be aware of any changes to your breasts and, if you spot anything unusual, get it checked out by your doctor. Visit our signs and symptoms page for more on what you should be looking out for.
I’ve still got questions, who should I speak to?
If you still have some questions regarding this issue, it’s best to call the special NHS helpline on 0800 169 2692.