Breast screening

Screening aims to find breast cancers early, when they have the best chance of being successfully treated.

  • To have screening you have an x-ray of your breast called a mammogram.
  • Breast screening is for women between the ages of 50 and 70, it is also for some trans or non-binary people.
  • You should get a letter with your results within 2 to 3 weeks. This will tell you what you need to do next.
  • There are potential benefits and risks.

Contact your breast screening service if you haven’t received your invitation or breast screening test results.

What is breast screening?

Cancer screening involves testing apparently healthy people for early signs of cancer.

Breast screening uses a test called mammography which involves taking x-rays of the breasts. Screening can help to find breast cancers early when they are too small to see or feel. These cancers are usually easier to treat than larger ones.

It is important to remember that screening will not prevent you from getting breast cancer but aims to find early breast cancers.

Overall, the breast screening programme finds cancer in around 9 out of every 1,000 women having screening.

Who has breast screening?

The NHS Breast Screening Programme invites all women from the age of 50 to 70 registered with a GP for screening every 3 years. This means that some people may not have their first screening mammogram until they are 52 or 53 years. 

If you are older than 70

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland you can still have screening every 3 years but you won't automatically be invited. To continue to have screening contact your GP or your local breast screening unit.

In Scotland you can continue to have breast screening after you are 71 years of age up until your 75th birthday, but you won’t automatically be invited, you have to contact your local breast 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 little evidence to show that regular mammograms for women below the screening age would reduce deaths from breast cancer. 

Breast screening for transgender or non-binary people

Breast screening is also for some trans or non-binary people. This includes:

  • trans men and non-binary people assigned female at birth who have not had an operation to remove their breasts (bilateral mastectomy)
  • trans women and non-binary people assigned male at birth who have taken feminising hormones

The screening invitations you automatically receive depend on how your sex is registered with your GP. Any hormones or surgeries you’ve had will impact which screenings are relevant for you.

If you haven’t had a breast screening invitation when you think you should, or you have any further questions, speak to your GP or gender identity clinic.

Find your local breast screening unit

Tests used in breast screening

Breast screening takes 2 x-rays of each breast. The x-rays are called mammograms. 

Diagram showing a woman having a mammogram

You have one mammogram from above and one from the side on each breast.

What happens if I have breast implants?

A mammogram is still the best way to detect early breast cancer, even if you have breast implants. But a small amount of the breast tissue might be hidden by the implant.

This means that it is not as easy to see all the breast tissue, and you may have more x-rays taken. This will help the doctor see as much of the breast tissue as possible. 

It is useful to let the screening unit staff know that you have implants before your mammogram.

After breast screening

You should get your results within 2 to 3 weeks. The radiographer can tell you when to expect yours. Most people have a normal reading.

If you have a normal result  

You will receive a letter to let you know your mammogram does not show any signs of cancer. Your next screening appointment will be in 3 years’ time. Do contact your GP or local screening unit if you haven’t received an appointment and think you are due one. 

It is important to see your GP If you notice any symptoms between your screening mammograms.

If the results aren't clear

If the x-ray isn't clear enough or shows any abnormal areas, the clinic staff will call you back for more tests. You might need to have the x-rays taken again.

If you are called back

Around 4 out of 100 women (around 4%) are called back for more tests. If this happens, you might feel very worried. But many of these women won’t have cancer.

If you are called back because your mammogram showed an abnormal area, you might have a magnified mammogram. This can show up particular areas of the breasts more clearly. These mammograms show the borders of any lump or thickened area. They can also show up areas of calcium (calcification). 

You might also have an ultrasound scan of the breast or a test to take a sample of cells from the abnormal area (biopsy) Open a glossary item.

Possible benefits of breast screening

Breast cancers found by screening are generally at an early stage. Very early breast cancers are usually easier to treat, may need less treatment, and are more likely to be successfully treated.

The current evidence suggests that breast screening reduces the number of deaths from breast cancer by about 1,300 a year in the UK.

Almost all women diagnosed with breast cancer at the earliest possible stage in England survive their disease for at least 5 years after diagnosis.

Risks of breast screening

Although breast screening can find many cancers early, it isn't perfect. There are some risks, and some people may have a false positive or false negative result.

What is a false negative result? 

Screening doesn't always find a cancer that is there. So some people with breast cancer will be missed. This is called a false negative result. 

What is a false positive result?

In some women, the test picks up something even though they don't have breast cancer. This is called a false positive result and can lead to anxiety and further tests such as a breast biopsy.

Overdiagnosis and overtreatment

As well as finding cancers that need treating, screening can also pick up breast cancers that won't ever cause any problems.

At the moment it isn't possible to know whether a breast cancer will grow quickly and need treatment, or will grow slowly, or not at all. So, almost all women diagnosed have surgery to remove the cancer. Many also have radiotherapy, hormone therapy or chemotherapy.

For some people the treatment is unnecessary but at the moment doctors can't tell who needs treatment and who doesn't.

Screening can also pick up changes in the lining of the breast ducts called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). It isn't possible to tell whether DCIS will develop into a cancer or not. So, many women with DCIS also have surgery and radiotherapy or hormone therapy.

A 2012 breast screening review found that screening leads to around 4,000 women overdiagnosed in the UK each year.

Exposure to radiation

Each mammogram exposes a person to small amounts of radiation from the x-rays. But the amount of radiation is very small.

X-rays can very rarely cause cancer. Having mammograms every 3 years for 20 years very slightly increases the chance of getting cancer over a woman’s lifetime.

The balance of benefit and harms

An NHS digital report found that more than 20,100 breast cancers were diagnosed through screening in England between 2021 and 2022.

Of those breast cancer cases detected most of these were found at an early stage.

Treatment is likely to be more successful if the cancer is an early stage.

Screening for women at higher risk

You can have screening from a younger age if you have a higher than average risk of breast cancer. This might be due to a family history Open a glossary item or an inherited Open a glossary item faulty gene (mutation) Open a glossary item.

Speak to your GP if you think you might be at an increased risk. They can refer you to a genetic specialist, who can assess your risk. Not everyone with a family history of cancer is at increased risk themselves.

If you have a family history of breast cancer

UK guidelines recommend that women with a moderate or high risk of breast cancer because of their family history should start having screening mammograms every year in their forties.

If you are younger than 40 and have an increased risk of breast cancer, you should be offered yearly MRI scans Open a glossary item from the age of 30 or 40. This depends on your level of risk.

If you have a gene mutation

If you have had tests that showed a mutation that increases the risk of breast cancer, the recommendations are slightly different.

UK guidelines recommend yearly MRI scans from:

  • age 20 for women with a TP53 mutation
  • age 30 for women with a BRCA1 Open a glossary item or BRCA2 Open a glossary item mutation

Should I go for breast screening?

It’s important that you have access to enough information about the benefits and harms of breast screening to make the decision.

You can talk to your own doctor or nurse. Or you can contact the Cancer Research UK information nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Breast awareness

Even if you are having mammograms every 3 years it is important to make sure that you know how your breasts normally look and feel. Cancers can develop between mammograms. This is known as an interval cancer. Mammograms can also miss some cancers.

If you notice any unusual changes in your breast don’t wait until your next mammogram. See your GP straight away. 

Information for people with learning disabilities

You can watch a video about women with learning disabilities who are going to have breast screening. The video was produced by Avon Breast Screening. It is about 11 minutes long. 

For people with a learning disability NHS England have an easy read leaflet about breast screening as well as links to other resources for those that cannot read.

British Sign Language (BSL) information

There is BSL information about breast screening in the different UK nations. Public Health Wales have 3 BSL videos about breast screening. They are about 35 minutes, 9 minutes and 7 minutes long.

NHS information have 2 videos about breast screening in Scotland. These are about 9 minutes and 11 minutes long.

The Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland have a British sign language and Irish sign language video. You can find these towards the bottom of the page and are both about 5 minutes long. 

JoC's breast cancer story

JoC was diagnosed when she attended a screening appointment. 

"I actually didn't have any idea that I had cancer."

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