Mammograms in breast screening
This page tells you about mammograms used in breast cancer screening. There is information about
What a mammogram is
A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. It can help to find breast cancer early as part of a breast cancer screening programme.
How you have a mammogram
A radiographer helps you to position one breast at a time between 2 flat plates on the X-ray machine. The plates press your breast firmly between them for a few moments to take the X-ray. You have 2 X-rays of each breast. The compression of the breast helps to give a clear picture. Having a mammogram can be uncomfortable. Some people find it painful. But the discomfort only lasts for the short time that your breast is compressed.
After the mammogram
Two specialists look at your mammogram to see if there are any signs of cancer. Around 96 out of 100 women (96%) have a normal result. Some women have an unclear result and may need to have the mammogram again.
Screening can find very early changes in the lining of the breast ducts called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). If you have any areas of DCIS, you usually have surgery to remove them.
If screening finds a cancer it is usually at an early stage when there is a good chance of successful treatment. Your GP will then refer you to a specialist breast clinic for further tests and treatment.
You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the About breast cancer section.
A radiographer helps you to position one breast at a time between 2 small flat plates on the X-ray machine. The plates then press your breast firmly between them for a few moments, to take the X-ray. The compression of the breast helps to give a clear picture.
You have 2 X-rays of each breast – one from above and one from the side.
View a transcript for the video about having a mammogram.
Some women worry about whether a mammogram will hurt. For most women it is just a bit uncomfortable. Some women do feel some pain, but it is usually only for a few moments while you are having the X-rays taken. Some women may have discomfort or soreness for a few days afterwards.
A Cochrane review reported that having good information before the test and having control over your breast compression during your mammogram reduces pain. Taking aspirin or paracetamol before the procedure didn't help. If you would like to, you can read this review on pain in mammography in the Cochrane Library. It is written for researchers and specialists and so is not written in plain English.
You should get your results within 14 days. The radiographer will tell you when to expect yours. If the X-ray is not clear enough or shows any abnormal areas, the clinic staff will call you back for more tests. You may need to have the X-rays taken again.
Well developed breast cancers nearly always show up clearly on mammograms.
But no screening test is perfect and unfortunately there will always be some cancers that are missed or do not show up.
With early stage breast cancer, there may be no lump, but your mammogram may show small areas of calcium in patterns within the breast tissue. These areas of calcium are called calcification. But calcification also sometimes develops because of non cancerous changes in the breast. The skill and experience of the technicians and doctors helps them to read the different patterns and decide which might be related to cancer and so need further tests.
Some cancers do not show clear signs on a mammogram. So always tell your doctor if you find any suspicious lump in your breast, even if you recently had a mammogram.
Your screening mammogram may show early changes in the lining of the breast ducts called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). This means that there are breast cancer cells there. But they are all inside the tubes that carry milk within the breast (the ducts). This means that they can't spread. In some women DCIS may spread into the surrounding breast tissue after some years, to become an invasive ductal breast cancer.
Your doctor will usually recommend that you have any areas of DCIS removed with surgery. There is very little risk of low grade or intermediate grade DCIS coming back once it has been removed. But if you have high grade DCIS you may need more treatment after surgery.
You can read about treatments on our page about DCIS.
You can find detailed information about mammograms and the UK breast screening programme on the NHS breast screening programme (NHSBSP) website.
There are various information resources in different formats and different languages. You can find audio and video resources as well as information and instruction leaflets.
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