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Who is screened for breast cancer?

Men and women discussing breast cancer

This page is about who is screened by the UK NHS breast screening programme. You can find information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Who is screened for breast cancer

The NHS breast screening programme uses breast X-rays (mammograms) to screen all women in the UK aged 50 to 70 who are registered with a GP. They are sent an invitation to go for screening every 3 years. Women older than 70 can make their own appointment for screening at their local breast screening unit. In England, the breast screening programme is expanding the screening age from 47 to 73.

The older you are, the more at risk you are of getting breast cancer. So it makes sense to keep having mammograms. If you are under 50, your risk of breast cancer is very low. Mammograms are more difficult to read in younger women because the breast tissue is more dense.

Women with a higher risk of breast cancer

Some women have a high risk of breast cancer due to a family history of the disease or an inherited faulty gene. These women can be screened from a younger age using MRI scans, mammograms or both, depending on the level of risk. 

If you think you might be at increased risk of breast cancer, 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. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) now recommends that some women with a moderate or high risk because of their family history should start having MRI scans in their 30's and mammograms in their 40's.

Breast awareness

You should make sure that you know how your breasts normally look and feel, even if you are having mammograms every 3 years. Many breast cancers are still found by women themselves rather than by screening. If you notice any unusual changes in your breasts, don’t wait until your next mammogram. See your GP straight away.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the About breast cancer section.

 

 

Who has screening

The NHS Breast Screening Programme uses breast X-rays (mammograms) to screen all women aged between 50 and 70 who are registered with a GP. They are sent an invitation to go for screening every 3 years. In England, the screening programme is currently extending the age range to include women aged from 47 to 73. Women older than the invitation age range can still have screening every three years, by making their own appointment at their local breast screening unit.

We are sometimes asked why women within the lower end of the age range haven’t had an invitation letter. This is because each local screening unit works through their area over 3 years on a rolling basis inviting women from each GP practice. So by the time 3 years has gone round, they will have covered the whole area and will then start at the beginning again. 

Everyone has at least one invitation before their 53rd birthday. In areas where the age range has been extended from 47 to 73 you will have an invitation before your 50th birthday. If you think you may have missed an invitation for any reason, contact your GP and ask them to tell your local screening service.

If you are younger than 50, your risk of breast cancer is generally very low. Mammograms are more difficult to read in younger women because their breast tissue is denser. So the patterns on the mammogram don't show up as well. There is also little evidence to show that regular mammograms for most women under the screening age reduces deaths from breast cancer.

About 3 out of 4 women (75%) go for their breast screening appointments when they are invited. Each year more than 2 million women have breast cancer screening in the UK. Only 4 out of every 100 (4%) were asked to go back for more tests.

 

How often you have screening

Research is comparing having mammograms once a year to mammograms every 3 years. Some studies show a slight increase in the number of breast cancers picked up with annual screening, compared to 3 yearly screening. But we need more research to see whether this actually saves more women's lives and what effect the higher exposure to radiation from yearly mammograms has.

If you find a breast lump or any other breast change that worries you, always tell your doctor, even if you recently had a normal mammogram.

 

Screening for women at higher risk

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.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) now recommends that women who have a moderate or high risk of breast cancer because of their family history should start having screening mammograms every year in their 40's. A joint NHS and Cancer Research UK study looked into mammography for women in their 40's with a significant family history of breast cancer. It found that yearly mammograms for women at an increased risk of breast cancer meant that cancers were diagnosed at an earlier stage and that it helped to save lives.

If you are younger than 40 and at an increased risk of developing breast cancer, NICE recommends that you should be offered yearly MRI scans from the age of 30 or 40, depending on your level of risk.

If you have had tests that show you have a change in a gene (mutation) known to increase the risk of breast cancer, the recommendations are slightly different. NICE recommend yearly MRI scans from 

  • Age 20 for women with a TP53 mutation
  • Age 30 for women with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation 

If you think you have a high risk of breast cancer because of your family history, you can talk to your GP. If they agree, they can refer you to a specialist breast clinic to have your risk assessed.

 

Breast awareness

It is important to make sure that you know how your breasts normally look and feel, even if you are having mammograms every 3 years. Many breast cancers are still found by women themselves. Cancers can develop between mammograms. This is known as an interval cancer. 

If you notice any symptoms that could be due to breast cancer don’t wait until your next mammogram. See your GP straight away. There is information about how to check your breasts in the early detection section.

 

The breast screening review

We have detailed information about the findings of the 2012 breast screening review. The review was funded by Cancer Research UK.

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Updated: 30 July 2014