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Breast screening (mammography)

Breast screening for women is a check for breast cancer. It uses an X-ray called a mammogram to check for changes in a woman’s breasts when she hasn’t had any breast cancer symptoms.

Screening for breast cancer means looking for the early signs of the disease in people who don’t have any symptoms.

The NHS runs a breast screening programme in the UK. All women between the age of 50 and 70 are offered screening every three years. In England the screening programme has recently been extended to include women aged 47 to 73. All women in this age group will be invited for screening by 2016.

If you’re at higher than average risk of developing breast cancer, for example, because a close female relative has had breast cancer or if you have an inherited faulty gene, you can have screening from a younger age. If you think you might be at increased risk, speak to your GP. He or she may be able to refer you for genetic or other testing.

When you go for breast screening you will have a mammogram. This is an image of your breasts taken using digital X-rays.

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women in the UK. It affects one in eight women at some time in their life. Eight out of 10 women who develop breast cancer are over 50. The earlier cancer is found the more chance you have of a cure.

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How a mammogram is carried out
Mammography is an X-ray examination of the breasts


  • Making a decision Deciding on breast screening

    You can choose whether or not to have breast screening. To make an informed decision, you need to know what the benefits and harms of having breast screening are.

    In 2012, a review of breast screening was held. There were concerns that women were being told a lot about the possible benefits and not enough about the possible harm.


    Most cancers that are picked up during screening are at an early stage. Finding breast cancer early means that treatment is more likely to be successful and you’re more likely to be cured. The screening programme does mean that more cancers are successfully treated than if screening was not available.


    Although having a mammogram is currently the best way of finding early breast cancer, it isn’t a perfect test.

    The potential harms of having breast screening are listed below.

    • A slow growing breast cancer might be found and treated, which would never have caused any harm. This is called over-diagnosis. At present doctors can’t tell for definite whether a breast cancer found during screening will be life-threatening. So, all women who have cancer found through screening are offered treatment. This means you may go on to have cancer treatment that you would never have needed.
    • You will be exposed to a small amount of radiation during the screening. It’s estimated that screening women every three years from age 47 to 73 would cause 3 to 6 cancers per 10,000 women screened. However, as digital mammography is being increasingly used in the UK, this risk will most likely reduce. Digital mammography uses lower doses of radiation.
    • You may be called back for more tests, but found not to have breast cancer and this can be stressful and upsetting.

    If there are any abnormal signs on your mammogram, you will be asked to attend a breast assessment clinic for more tests. Approximately eight in every 100 women are called back for more tests after having screening.

    Breast self referral

    If you are experiencing the symptoms of suspected breast cancer and have Bupa health insurance, there is usually no need for a GP referral. Call our team to speak to a specialist advisor or nurse.

    Excludes some company schemes. Subject to member’s underwriting terms and any pre-existing conditions. Eligibility checks are required for pre-authorisation.

  • Breast awareness Breast awareness

    Even if you’re having regular breast screening, it’s important to be breast aware so that you notice any changes in your breasts. Check your breasts regularly for any change in the size, shape or the way they feel. If you notice any breast changes or symptoms, contact your GP, even if a recent mammogram didn’t show any changes.

  • How it works How does the breast screening programme work?

    Breast screening is carried out at a special breast screening unit, which may be at a hospital, clinic or in a mobile unit.

    You will need to be registered with a GP to be invited for screening. You should get an invitation before you turn 53. If you're 53 or over and haven’t received an invitation, contact your GP for advice.

    You may not be invited for breast screening when you’re over 70. You can still have screening once every three years, but you will need to arrange this yourself through your GP or local breast screening unit. You can also have a mammogram at independent or private facilities.

  • Worried about breast lumps?

    Get a picture of your current health and potential future health risks with a Bupa health assessment. Find out more today.

  • Pros and cons Pros and cons

    This information is intended to help you understand the advantages and disadvantages of breast screening. Think about how important each particular issue is to you. You and your doctor can work together to make a decision that's right for you. Your decision will be based on your doctor’s expert opinion and your personal values and preferences.


    • Most cancers that are picked up during screening are at an early stage. This means that any treatment for breast cancer is more likely to be successful.
    • Having breast screening which shows that there are no abnormalities in your breasts can be reassuring.


    • You may find having the mammogram uncomfortable.
    • You may end up having treatment for breast cancer which you may not have needed.
    • You will be exposed to a small amount of radiation during the screening.
    • You may be called back for more tests, but found not to have breast cancer and this can be stressful and upsetting.
    • No screening test is perfect and some cancers may be missed or not show up.
  • FAQs FAQs

    Why are younger women not invited for breast screening?


    Screening for breast cancer in younger women is less effective than screening in older women. This is because women have denser breast tissue before the menopause, which makes mammograms more difficult to read correctly.


    Before you reach the menopause the tissue in your breasts is dense and made up of glandular tissue. After the menopause the tissue changes and the amount of fat in your breast increases. This makes it easier to see smaller, subtle changes, making the mammogram easier to read and the screening more effective.

    If close members of your family have had breast cancer or if a relative was diagnosed with breast cancer at an early age, you may have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. If you’re at moderate or high risk of developing breast cancer then you may be offered screening at a younger age than 50.

    You may be offered screening using an MRI scan, rather than a mammogram. An MRI scan uses magnets and radio waves to produce images of the inside of the body.

    It’s always important to see your GP if you notice any changes in your breasts, no matter what your age.

    I have breast implants. Will this affect breast screening?


    Yes, breast screening using mammography may be less effective if you have breast implants. However, there are a number of things your radiographer can do to make the results more accurate.


    A breast implant can affect your breast screening results because X-rays can’t pass through it to the tissue behind it. This means that some of your breast tissue can be hidden from view.

    If you have breast implants, tell the radiographer when you have the mammogram taken. She can use different techniques to show more of your breast tissue when the image is taken. If possible, tell the breast screening unit staff when you receive your invitation so that your mammogram can be arranged at a main screening unit, rather than a mobile one.

    During the mammogram, your breast is placed between two special plates on the X-ray machine. This shouldn’t damage your implants.

    Can women over 70 have breast screening?


    The NHS breast screening programme originally only offered screening to women aged 50 to 70. The programme is currently being extended in England to include women up to age 73.


    Women aged between 50 and 70 are invited for mammography every three years as part of the NHS Breast Screening Programme. The programme is currently being extended in England to include women up to age 73. If you're over 73, you won’t routinely be invited for breast screening. However, you can still arrange to have breast screening done and are entitled to have it done every three years if you wish. Contact your local breast screening unit to make an appointment or talk to your GP who can make an appointment for you.

    You should let the breast screening unit know about any special requirements for your visit when you book your appointment. Special arrangements can be made if you need help with standing or undressing, or if you need wheelchair access.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information


    • NHS Breast Cancer Screening Programme., accessed 8 January 2014
    • Breast disease. Oxford Handbook of General Practice (online). Oxford Medicine Online., published August 2010
    • Familial breast cancer. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). 2013.
    • Breast cancer incidence statistics. Cancer Research UK., published November 2012
    • Breast screening. Clinical Knowledge Summaries., published December 2011
    • The benefits and harms of breast cancer screening: An independent review. Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health 2012.
    • Gøtzsche P, Jørgensen K. Screening for breast cancer with mammography. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 6. Art. No.: CD001877. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001877.pub5
    • Berrington de González A. Estimates of the potential risk of radiation-related cancer from screening in the UK. J Med Screen 2011; 18(163): 163-64. doi 10.1258/jms.2011.011073
    • Breast cancer: managing family history. Clinical Knowledge Summaries., published November 2009 
    • Breast implants and breast screening. NHS breast cancer screening programme. 2010.
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    Reviewed by Sarah Smith, Bupa Health Information Team, September 2013.

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