Breast Cancer Screening

Macmillan Cancer Support

Breast cancer screening is a way of finding breast cancers early, when they are small. When breast cancer is diagnosed early, less treatment may be needed, and treatment is more likely to be effective. The first stage of breast screening is a breast x-ray (mammogram) of each breast. About 96 out of every 100 women who go for screening (96%) have a normal result.

Breast screening age

Every year, around 2.5 million women in the UK have screening with an NHS Breast Screening Programme. Women aged between 50 and 70 who are registered with a GP are invited for a mammogram. This happens every 3 years.

In England, a research trial is looking at extending the age range to include women aged 47 to 49 and 71 to 73. Most local breast screening centres in England are taking part. If you live in England, you may be invited to have breast screening as part of this trial. If you have any symptoms of breast cancer, see your GP. Do not wait for a breast screening invitation.

If you are under 50

Women under 50 are not routinely invited for breast screening. This is because breast cancer is much less common in women in this age group. Mammograms are also less reliable before the menopause, which usually happens around the age of 50. After the menopause, breast tissue is less dense. There is more fatty tissue and less glandular and connective tissue. This makes mammograms easier to read.

Women under 50 who have a family history of breast cancer may be offered regular screening. There are also some rare types of inherited conditions that can increase the risk of breast cancer. If you have one of these conditions, you may also be offered screening under the age of 50.

If you are over 70

If you are over 70, you can still have screening. This is because you are still at risk of breast cancer. You will not get an invitation letter unless you are part of the trial mentioned above. But you can contact your local screening unit every 3 years to arrange a mammogram. You can ask your GP where your local screening unit is.

Getting your appointment

Your invitation for breast screening comes by letter with information about your appointment and what to expect. This includes information if you:

  • need an interpreter
  • have breast implants
  • have been treated for breast cancer.

What happens during the appointment?

A breast screening appointment usually takes about 30 minutes. When you arrive, you will meet the receptionist or the person doing the mammogram (mammographer or radiographer). They will check your name, date of birth and address. The mammogram is done by female staff.

They will ask you questions about your health and whether you have had any breast problems. The mammographer will explain how the mammogram images are taken and can answer any questions you have. If you are happy with this, you will then have your mammogram.

The staff are trained to reassure and support you. If you feel it would help, you may be able to bring someone with you. Contact the screening unit before your appointment to arrange this. Men are not usually allowed in the screening area, but can wait in the waiting room.

Getting your screening results

You usually get your breast screening results, in writing, about 2 to 3 weeks after your mammogram. A copy is also sent to your GP. If you have not heard anything after 3 weeks, call your breast screening unit and ask them to check your results.

Your results letter will tell you one of the following:

  • Your mammogram is normal, and you will be invited again for screening in 3 years if you are still of screening age. About 96 out of every 100 women who have breast screening (96%) have a normal result.
  • You are invited for a repeat mammogram. This can happen if the mammogram has missed part of the breast tissue, the x-ray picture is blurred or there is a problem with the equipment (but this is rare).
  • You are invited to a breast assessment clinic for further tests. This happens to about 4 out of every 100 women who have breast screening (4%). But around 3 out of 4 women who have further tests (75%) do not have breast cancer.

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