1. What is breast screening?
2. When will I be invited for screening?
3. What happens during breast screening?
4. Getting your results
5. Benefits and risks of screening
6. Staying breast aware between mammograms
Breast screening uses a breast x-ray, called a mammogram, to look for breast cancers that may be too small to see or feel.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK. The sooner it’s diagnosed, the more effective treatment is likely to be.
Screening can pick up cancers earlier, before there are any signs or symptoms.
*Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak most national screening services were temporarily suspended March–July 2020. Breast screening is now restarting but it could take some time for services to be fully restored.*
The UK breast screening age
As you get older, your risk of breast cancer increases.
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 are 53.
You have to be registered with a GP to be automatically invited for screening.
If you're 71 or over
If you’re 71 or over you will not be automatically sent an invitation for screening.
Women who are 71 and over can continue to have breast screening every three years if they ask for it. However, this is currently not available everywhere in the UK.
The self-referral system for women 71 and over was paused in 2020. This was to allow screening services to catch up after delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Screening in England and Northern Ireland is now available again for women 71 and over.
Women in Wales and Scotland may need to wait longer before they can self-refer.
Find out more about how breast screening is restarting after the coronavirus outbreak.
Age extension trial
In England, some breast screening clinics were taking part in a trial where some women under 50 and over 70 were invited for screening. This was to see if it would be beneficial to extend the age range for all women in the future.
As part of the age extension trial, some women aged 47 to 49 and 71 to 73 were invited for a mammogram.
This trial has now stopped.
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 and 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 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 x-ray is taken.
Find out more about having a mammogram.
The results of your screening mammogram are sent by post to you and your GP.
Most women will receive a letter telling them that 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 that you have breast cancer, just that more tests are needed to find out what it is.
Occasionally some women receive a letter asking them to go back for another mammogram because a technical issue meant the image was unclear.
There are advantages and disadvantages of breast screening.
Benefits of screening
It can find breast cancer early
Screening can find a breast cancer early, before it can be seen or felt.
The earlier breast cancer is found, the more likely it is to respond well to treatment, and the less likely you are to need a mastectomy (removal of the breast).
It prevents deaths
Screening prevents an estimated 1,300 deaths from breast cancer each year in the UK.
Another way of saying this is that for every 200 women screened, one life is saved.
Risks of screening
Some women find having a mammogram uncomfortable.
However, this isn’t always the case and a mammogram only takes a few seconds.
Some cancers found through breast 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 all cancers are treated. This means some women will have treatment that may be unnecessary (known as overtreatment).
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.
Worry and distress
Around four out of every 100 women screened are recalled for further assessment. This is usually because an area has shown up on the mammogram and more information is needed before a result can be given.
The majority of women recalled do not have breast cancer. However, being recalled or having more tests can cause a lot of worry and distress.
Having a mammogram every three years for 20 years means being exposed to a small amount of radiation. This can very slightly increase the risk of developing breast cancer in the future.
The amount of radiation you are exposed to during a mammogram is very low, and you would receive a similar amount from flying between London and Australia and back.
Who can help you make your choice?
Whether or not your go for screening is your choice. It’s important you have the information you need to make your decision.
Even if you don’t go to a screening appointment, you’ll continue to be automatically invited for screening for as long as you are eligible.
If you decide not to go for your screening appointment, tell the screening service so they can offer the appointment to someone else.
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.