Breast cancer screening: everything you need to know

7 January 2016 - by Hannah Mottishaw

Breast cancer screening

There is much debate about the pros and cons of breast screening and although experts recently reassured women screening saves lives, the proportion of women attending screening in England has dropped slightly in the past few years.

The NHS estimates breast cancer screening saves 1,300 a year from the disease in the UK, so we’ve decided to give you the lowdown on what to expect at a screening. That way, you can make an informed decision about whether you want to have breast screening.

Why is it offered?

As with all cancers, if breast cancer is detected early, there is a better chance of recovery. Screening allows breast cancers to be found at an early stage, when they are too small to see or feel.

There are some risks, so it is up to you to decide if you want to have breast screening.

What happens at a breast screening?

Breast cancer screening is carried out by female members of staff at specialist clinics or mobile breast units.

During the screening you will undergo a mammogram, which is an X-ray of the breast. According to NHS Choices, the staff at the breast screening unit will check your details and ask you about any breast problems you have had.

You will need to undress to the waist, so it may be easier to wear a skirt or trousers instead of a dress.

The mammographer – the women who carry out mammograms – will first explain what will happen. She will then help you to place one breast at a time between two small flat plates on the mammogram machine. After that, the mammographer will go behind a screen and the plates will press your breast firmly between them for a few seconds, to take the X-ray.

The mammographer will usually take two X-rays of each breast – one from about and one from the side.

Will it hurt?

Most women will find the procedure a bit uncomfortable, while some women may find it painful. However, it is usually only for a few moments. It is also worth noting that the compression of the plates, which causes the discomfort, is necessary to ensure that the mammogram is clear.

After the breast screening

After you have had your breasts X-rayed, the mammogram will be checked for any signs of cancer by two people called film readers and image readers.

The results of your mammogram will be sent to your GP within 14 days of your appointment.

Your breast cancer screening results

Around one in 25 women will be called back for further assessment but remember, being called back doesn’t always mean you have cancer. The first mammogram may have been unclear.

If you are called back, you may have a breast examination, more mammograms and ultrasounds and you will usually get your results within a week.

Benefits of breast screening

Experts tend to agree that the main benefit of breast screening is that it can identify breast cancer early. Early detection is vital in bettering the chances of survival. It also means that you are less likely to need a mastectomy (breast removal) or chemotherapy.

Risks of breast screening

Unfortunately, breast screening does have its risks and they are as follows:

  • Over-treatment: Some women who have screening will be diagnosed and treated for breast cancer that would never otherwise have caused them harm.
  • Unnecessary distress: Figure show that one in 25 women will be called back for further assessment. However, being called back doesn’t mean you definitely have cancer. The mammogram may have been unclear. Most women who receive an abnormal screening result are not found to have breast cancer and this may cause unnecessary worry and distress.
  • Missed diagnosis: There is a small chance that you’ll receive and all clear result when cancer is actually present. Although mammograms detect most breast cancers, they miss breast cancer in one in 2,500 women screened.
  • Radiation: Ironically, the radiation of a mammogram can, very rarely, cause cancer.

Weighing up the pros and cons

Experts have reviewed the evidence and they estimate that for every one woman who has her life saved from breast cancer, about three women are diagnosed with a cancer that would never have become life-threatening.

Although you may end up having treatment that you didn’t need, if you happen to have serious breast cancer by taking part in breast screening, you will significantly increase your chance of survival.

Comments (1)

The following comments have been added by the user community and do not represent the views of HealthFriends or any organisation mentioned in the above article.


alexandert - Male

United States - Wed, 23 Sep 2015

Yes, there are lots of debate going on about the pros and cons of breast screening. Breast cancer screening is done to identify cancer symptoms early and help doctor to offer essential treatment in the initial stage. Example of breast cancer screening is mammogram, which is generally an X-ray of the breast. Though previous mammogram had some flaws, but now with the introduction of 3D mammogram by Hologic company present at , flaws like false detection, false alarms etc. have been overcome and now doctors get more accurate results while screening.

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