Breast screening is a way of finding breast cancers early, when they are too small for you or your doctor to see or feel. The first stage of breast screening is a mammogram. A mammogram is an x-ray of each breast.
Under the present Department of Health guidelines all women registered with a GP and aged 50 to 70 are offered a free mammogram every three years. If you are older than this you won’t be automatically invited for breast screening, but you can still have free mammograms by making your own appointment every three years. It is important to do this, as the risk of developing breast cancer increases as women get older.
Women younger than the screening age are not routinely offered breast screening because large research trials have shown that regular screening of this group does not help to save lives. Breast cancer is uncommon in women under 50, and the radiation exposure from regular mammography in younger women is more of a risk. Mammograms are less effective at detecting breast cancer in women who have not had their menopause. The menopause happens, on average, around the age of 50. After the menopause the breast tissue is less dense, which makes mammograms easier to read and the results more reliable.
Women under the screening programme age who have an increased risk of breast cancer because of a family history should be offered regular screening. This may involve a different type of screening test called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Although mammography can be less reliable in women under 50, new mammography techniques using digital images are being introduced that are more useful at detecting breast cancers in younger women.
The Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland’s Public Health Agency have no current plans to extend the age range for breast screening for women in Wales and Northern Ireland. The Scottish government is waiting to see what difference the new age range makes in England before recommending a similar extension in Scotland. Each year more than one and a half million women in the UK have breast cancer screening as part of the NHS Breast Screening Programme. The programme is nationally coordinated and has set national standards.