Your mammogram appointment and what to expect

In the UK, women aged 50–70 who are registered with a GP (family doctor) are invited to attend for breast screening every three years. If you are 70 or over, you can still choose to have regular screening. You won’t receive an invitation letter but you can contact your screening clinic to request a mammogram. A mammogram is a type of x-ray that looks for very early breast cancers.

In England the age range is being extended to include all women aged 47–73 by 2016. 

The appointment takes about 30 minutes. You will need to remove your clothes from your top half of your body. Each of your breasts will be placed on the x-ray machine. They will be flattened with a clear, plastic sheet. This keeps the breast still and gets a clear picture. It may be uncomfortable for a short time while the x-rays are being taken.

Many screening units now use digital mammograms to produce better quality pictures. These are better at finding cancers in younger women and women with denser breast tissue. The images are stored on computer images instead of x-ray films.

Getting an appointment for breast screening

All women registered with a GP will receive their first invitation to have a mammogram some time between their 50th and 53rd birthdays. In England, extending the screening age range will mean that every woman registered with a GP will be offered their first breast screening appointment by their 50th birthday. Invitations are then sent every three years until a woman reaches her 70th birthday (73rd birthday once the age range is extended in England).

You will get a leaflet with your invitation letter that explains what will happen. Leaflets are also available in large print and are translated into many languages. If you don’t speak or understand English well, the unit can arrange an interpreter for you.  Some units will allow a female family member or friend to translate information for you, but others prefer that you use a female interpreter.

If you have any worrying breast symptoms while waiting for a breast screening appointment, contact your GP, who can refer you to the breast clinic if necessary.

When you receive your invitation from your local breast screening unit, you will be given a date, time and place to attend. There are specialised screening units across the country, which can either be mobile (like a large van), hospital-based or permanently based in a convenient place such as a shopping centre. If the appointment is inconvenient for you, you can phone the breast screening unit and they will arrange an alternative appointment. The phone number for the breast screening unit will be on the letter.

A visit to a breast screening unit usually takes about 30 minutes. You’ll be met and welcomed by a receptionist or a female radiographer who will check your personal details (name, age and address). The radiographer will ask you some questions about your general health and whether you’ve had any previous breast problems.

The radiographer will explain how the mammograms are taken and can answer any questions that you might have about breast screening. If you’re happy to go ahead, you will then go into the mammography room to have your mammogram.


Mammogram

A mammogram is a low-dose x-ray of the breast tissue. It is a test to look for early breast cancers. You will need to take off your clothes from the top part of your body, including your bra. The radiographer will then position you so that each breast is placed in turn on the x-ray machine and gently but firmly compressed (flattened) with a clear, plastic plate.

The breast tissue needs to be compressed to keep the breast still and to get the clearest picture with the lowest amount of radiation possible. Most women find this uncomfortable, and for some women it is painful for a short time while the breast is being compressed. You will need to stay still for less than a minute while the x-ray is taken. Usually two mammograms are taken of each breast from different angles.

When mammograms have been taken of both breasts, you can get dressed again and are free to leave.

You may have a mammogram as part of screening for breast cancer, or because you have symptoms that need checking.


Digital mammogram

Many screening units now use digital mammograms to produce better quality pictures. They use a slightly lower X-ray dose and the images are stored on computer images instead of x-ray films. Digital mammograms are better at finding cancers in younger women and women who have denser breast tissue.

Trials are being carried out on the use of a three dimensional (3D) digital x-ray called tomosynthesis for breast cancer screening. This takes more x-rays of the breast at different angles than a standard mammogram. A computer uses these x-rays to create a 3D image. This may make abnormal changes easier to see. Tomosynthesis is still part of a trial, so is not widely available


Back to Breast screening

The breasts

Breasts are made of fat, supportive (connective tissue) and glandular tissue that contains lobes (milk glands).

Breast awareness

Knowing what your breasts normally feel and look like can help you to notice any changes early.

What is breast screening?

Breast screening can find breast cancers that are too small to see or feel.

Family history of breast cancer

If you are under 50 and have a family history of breast cancer, you may be screened for breast cancer.

Getting your mammogram results

You should get the results of your mammogram within two weeks.

If further tests are required

After your breast screening, you may asked to visit a breast assessment clinic for more tests.

Potential results of further tests

You will be given the results of your tests by a doctor at the assessment clinic.

Common questions about breast screening

You may have lots of questions about breast screening.