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Spotting cancer early saves lives

Breast cancer screening

Breast cancer screening is used to test people who appear to be healthy for any signs that cancer may be developing. This is currently offered every three years to women from the ages of 50-70 years old, and also women with a higher than average risk of developing breast cancer.

The screening involves a test called a mammogram, where X-ray images of the breast are taken. These images can be used to detect signs of cancer which are too small to see or feel, therefore reducing the risk of mortality by finding breast cancer at an earlier stage.

It is important to take advantage of the screening programme as around 8 women in every 1,000 are found to have cancer from the tests. If something’s wrong, the time to know is now. Chances are you’ll get the reassuring news that your mammogram is ‘normal’, but, if not, the sooner you're diagnosed the better. Mammograms can detect lumps before you can see or feel them, and early detection makes a full recovery very likely.

Remember to keep checking your breasts between X-rays.

Why is it important to go for your routine mammogram?

Mammograms can spot lumps long before you can see or feel them. Screening saves approximately one person from breast cancer out of every 200 women who are screened. This adds up to about 1,300 lives saved from breast cancer each year in the UK.

I haven't been called for breast screening yet, even though I'm over 50. Do I need to contact anyone?

The NHS Breast Screening Programme is a rolling programme which calls women from doctors' practices one by one. This means not every woman receives her invitation as soon as she is 50. It will be sometime between the ages of 50 and 53. If you are registered with a GP and the practice has your correct details, then you will automatically receive an invitation. You don't need to contact anyone but if it has been over three years since your last screen, contact the London breast screening service.

It is important to go and get checked out by your GP if you experience any symptoms or you are worried about your breasts.  

Is it safe attend to attend my screening appointment during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Breast Screening services want you to feel safe to attend your appointment. Breast screening appointments are deemed as essential activity and therefore exempt from restrictions on movements imposed in tier 4 areas.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, breast screening services have put in place special measures to protect patients and staff. These include

  • all visitors wear a mask or face covering
  • hand sanitiser dispensers available across the screening unit
  • clear floor markings/wall signs to guide your route to a separate entrance and exit out of the unit, to keep a safe distance from others
  • limited capacity in waiting rooms to maintain social distancing
  • equipment cleaning with specific wipes effective against coronavirus.

Access to screening services is also easier as you can have your appointment on days and times of your own choosing.

This animated video aims to reassure women about attending breast screening appointments while the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

I’m over 50 and I haven’t had a mammogram for over three years.  What should I do?

Contact the London breast screening service if you have not received an invitation.

I believe I’m at a higher risk of breast cancer

Women at higher than average risk of breast cancer due to a family history or inherited faulty gene can have screening from a younger age. If you think you might be at increased risk, speak to your GP. They can refer you to a genetic specialist, who will be able to assess your risk. Not everyone with a family history of cancer is at increased risk themselves.

What do mammograms involve?

When you arrive at the breast-screening unit, the staff will check your details and ask you about any breast problems you have had. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. You may also be able to take along a female friend or relative.

Mammograms are carried out by staff called mammographers. The mammography staff are female. To have a mammogram, you need to undress to the waist, so it may be easier to wear a skirt or trousers instead of a dress. The mammographer will first explain what will happen. She will then place your breast onto the mammogram machine and lower a plastic plate onto it to flatten it. This helps to keep your breast still and get clear mammograms.

The mammographer will usually take two mammograms of each breast - one from above and one from the side. She will go behind a screen while the x-rays are taken. You have to keep still for several seconds each time.

The whole appointment takes less than half an hour and the mammogram only takes a few minutes.

And remember, mammograms don’t protect you from breast cancer, so keep checking your breasts regularly in between mammograms.

When will I get my breast screening results?

You will receive a letter with your breast screening results within two weeks of your appointment. The results will also be sent to your GP. At this stage, 96 out of 100 women will have their minds put at ease with the ‘all clear’ – a normal result. If you get this good news, remember that cancer can still develop between mammograms, so tell your GP straight away if you notice any breast changes.

About 4 in every 100 women are asked to come back for more tests after screening.  Out of these 4 women, 1 will be found to have cancer. The rest will not have cancer and will go back to having screening invitations every 3 years.

Where can I find further information?

Further information on breast screening is available from here:

NHS breast screening programme

London breast screening service