Screening for breast cancer means looking for the early signs of the disease in people who don’t have any symptoms.
The NHS runs a breast screening programme in the UK. All women between the age of 50 and 70 are offered screening every three years. In England the screening programme has recently been extended to include women aged 47 to 73. All women in this age group will be invited for screening by 2016.
If you’re at higher than average risk of developing breast cancer, for example, because a close female relative has had breast cancer or if you have an inherited faulty gene, you can have screening from a younger age. If you think you might be at increased risk, speak to your GP. He or she may be able to refer you for genetic or other testing.
When you go for breast screening you will have a mammogram. This is an image of your breasts taken using digital X-rays.
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women in the UK. It affects one in eight women at some time in their life. Eight out of 10 women who develop breast cancer are over 50. The earlier cancer is found the more chance you have of a cure.
Breast screening is carried out at a special breast screening unit, which may be at a hospital, clinic or in a mobile unit.
You will need to be registered with a GP to be invited for screening. You should get an invitation before you turn 53. If you're 53 or over and haven’t received an invitation, contact your GP for advice.
You may not be invited for breast screening when you’re over 70. You can still have screening once every three years, but you will need to arrange this yourself through your GP or local breast screening unit. You can also have a mammogram at independent or private facilities.
You can choose whether or not to have breast screening. To make an informed decision, you need to know what the benefits and harms of having breast screening are.
In 2012, a review of breast screening was held. There were concerns that women were being told a lot about the possible benefits and not enough about the possible harm.
Most cancers that are picked up during screening are at an early stage. Finding breast cancer early means that treatment is more likely to be successful and you’re more likely to be cured. The screening programme does mean that more cancers are successfully treated than if screening was not available.
Although having a mammogram is currently the best way of finding early breast cancer, it isn’t a perfect test.
The potential harms of having breast screening are listed below.
If there are any abnormal signs on your mammogram, you will be asked to attend a breast assessment clinic for more tests. Approximately eight in every 100 women are called back for more tests after having screening.
Even if you’re having regular breast screening, it’s important to be breast aware so that you notice any changes in your breasts. Check your breasts regularly for any change in the size, shape or the way they feel. If you notice any breast changes or symptoms, contact your GP, even if a recent mammogram didn’t show any changes.
Reviewed by Sarah Smith, Bupa Health Information Team, September 2013.