1. What is breast screening?
2. When will I be invited for breast screening?
3. Breast screening after 70
4. Advantages and disadvantages of screening
5. What happens during screening?
6. Getting your results
7. Staying breast aware between mammograms

1. What is breast screening?

Breast screening uses a breast x-ray, called a mammogram, to look for cancer that may be too small to see or feel. 

The sooner breast cancer is diagnosed, the more effective treatment is likely to be. Screening can pick up breast cancer before there are any signs or symptoms. 

Breast screening appointments

If you have a question about a breast screening appointment, you can find your local screening unit on the NHS website. 

2. When will I be invited for breast screening?

In the UK, women aged 50 to their 71st birthday are invited for a mammogram every three years as part of a national breast screening programme. 

This may not happen the year you turn 50, but it will happen by the time you’re 53. 

You have to be registered with a GP to be automatically invited for screening.

Some trans or non-binary people can access breast screening. Talk to your GP or gender identity clinic for more information. 

Why are women under 50 not invited for screening? 

The number of women who get breast cancer is much lower in this age group. 

Over 80% of breast cancers occur in women over 50 and the risk continues to increase with age. 

Younger women also have denser breast tissue, which can make the x-ray image less clear and changes harder to identify. 

3. Breast screening after 70

If you’re 71 or over you will not be automatically sent an invitation for screening. 

However, in some parts of the UK you can continue to have breast screening every three years if you contact your local breast screening unit and ask for it. 

Your GP surgery can put you in touch with your local breast screening clinic or you can look them up online.

Find out how to contact your local screening unit on the NHS website. 

4. Advantages and disadvantages of screening

Advantages 

Screening finds breast cancer early 

The sooner breast cancer is found, the more likely it is to respond well to treatment, and the less likely you are to need more extensive surgery.

Screening prevents deaths 

Screening prevents an estimated 1,300 deaths from breast cancer each year in the UK.

Disadvantages 

It can be uncomfortable  

However, this isn’t always the case and a mammogram only takes a few seconds. 

Some women will be offered unnecessary treatment

Some cancers found through screening will not develop any further or will grow so slowly that they will never cause any harm during a woman’s life. 

At the moment, doctors cannot tell which cancers can be left alone, so treatment is offered for all breast cancers. This means some women may have unnecessary treatment (known as overtreatment). 

A small number of cancers are missed 

Mammograms are the most reliable way of detecting breast cancer sooner. However, they’re not 100% reliable and a small number of breast cancers are missed. 

Being recalled can cause worry and distress 

Around four out of every 100 women screened are recalled for further assessment. 

Most of these women do not have breast cancer. But being recalled or having more tests can cause a lot of worry and distress. 

You’re exposed to a small amount of radiation 

The amount of radiation you’re exposed to during a mammogram is very low, and you would receive a similar amount from a return flight between London and Australia.

5. What happens during breast screening? 

Your appointment will be at a breast screening unit

This might be a breast screening clinic or in some areas a mobile screening unit. 

First, you’ll be asked to complete a questionnaire. It will ask about any ongoing medical conditions, if you’re having hormone replacement therapy (HRT), and if you’ve had any breast problems. 

Your mammogram will be carried out by a woman

A female mammography practitioner (an expert in taking breast x-rays) will explain what will happen and answer any questions you have. 

Let her know if you’re pregnant or think you may be pregnant. 

You’ll be asked to remove your clothing from the waist up

You’ll stand in front of the mammogram machine.

Your breasts will be placed one at a time on the x-ray machine. The breast will be pressed down firmly on the surface by a clear plate.

At least two pictures (x-rays) of each breast will be taken, one from top to bottom and then a second from side to side to include the part of your breast that extends into your armpit. You’ll need to stay in position while the pictures are taken.

Taking the pictures only takes a few seconds.

6. Getting your results

The results of your screening mammogram are sent by post to you and your GP. 

Most women will receive a letter telling them their mammogram showed no signs of cancer. They’ll be invited for screening again in three years. 

Some women will get a letter asking them to come back for further assessment. This is because more tests are needed to assess a change seen on the mammogram. Being recalled doesn’t necessarily mean you have breast cancer, just that more tests are needed. 

Occasionally some women receive a letter asking them to go back for another mammogram because a technical issue meant the image was unclear.

7. Staying breast aware between mammograms 

Having mammograms cannot prevent breast cancer, and it’s possible for breast cancer to develop in the three years between each mammogram. 

It’s important to continue to be breast aware and report any changes to your GP even if you have had a mammogram recently. 

Last reviewed: July 2021
Next planned review begins 2023

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