Mammograms for breast screening

A mammogram is an x-ray of your breasts. X-rays use high energy rays to take pictures of the inside of your body.

Breast screening with a mammogram can help to find breast cancers early when they are too small to see or feel. 

The health professionals who take mammograms are called mammographers. And a female mammographer will usually take your mammogram.  

The mammogram itself only takes a few minutes, but the appointment may last about 30 minutes. 

Before you go, you should have been sent some information about the risks and benefits of having a mammogram for breast screening. Talk to your local screening unit or GP if you haven’t received anything. 

Who has breast screening?

The NHS breast screening programme invites all women aged between 50 and 70 for screening every 3 years. You need to be registered with a GP to receive the invitations.

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

Preparing for a mammogram

There are no special preparations for a mammogram. You can eat and drink normally beforehand.

Avoid using talcum powder or deodorant on the day of your screening as this may affect the mammogram.

Tell the mammographer if you have breast implants. You may need extra x-rays to see the breasts clearly. The mammographer is very experienced in doing mammograms with women with breast implants.

Where will I have my mammogram?

Your mammogram may take place in a mobile unit or in a hospital. Some units are also based in shopping centres.

Diagram showing a woman having a mammogram

Having a mammogram

You take off your clothes from the waist upwards. You might put on a hospital gown.

You stand close to the x-ray machine. The radiographer positions one breast at a time between 2 flat plates on the machine. The plates press your breast firmly between them for a few moments. You will feel a little pressure and It is likely to be uncomfortable. Some women find it painful but It is over quickly.

You have two x-rays of each breast: one from the top and one from the side.

After your mammogram

You can get dressed and go home straight after the mammogram. You might have some tenderness in your breasts for up to a few hours.

Two people called film readers, image readers or radiologists look at the mammogram pictures. Around 96 out of 100 women (96%) in the breast screening programme have a normal result.

If the mammogram 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 mamograms taken again. 

What a mammogram can show

With early stage breast cancer, there might not be a lump. But your mammogram may show small areas of calcium in the breast tissue.

These areas of calcium are called calcification. But calcification also 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 people have a condition called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) that shows up on the mammogram. 

Getting your mammogram results

You usually receive a letter giving you the results within 2 weeks of having the test. Your GP will also get a copy.

If you don't receive your results within this time, contact the breast screening clinic.

If screening finds a cancer

If screening shows that you have cancer, it is likely to have been found early. This means you have a very good chance of successful treatment.

Possible risks

A mammogram is a very safe procedure but the screening unit staff will tell you who to contact if you have any problems after your test.

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. 

For some, a mammogram may pick 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.

Exposure to radiation 

With each mammogram, there is a small amount of radiation exposure 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.

Angela's story

"I'm so pleased I went for my routine mammogram."

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