Breast screening and having a mammogram

Your health expert: Mr Harun Thomas, Consultant Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon and Sulyika Abdullahi, Clinical Mammography Lead at Bupa
Content editor review by Rasheda Begum, Health Content Editor, December 2023
Next review due December 2026

A mammogram is an X-ray of your breasts that checks for signs of cancer. Breast screening mammograms aim to detect breast cancer before you or your doctor notice any signs of a problem. You may also be offered a diagnostic mammogram if you already show signs of breast cancer.

About breast screening

The NHS runs a national breast screening programme in the UK. If you’re aged 50 to 70 and registered with a GP, you’ll be invited to breast screening by the NHS every three years. You can also have a breast screening mammogram at some private clinics, which may accept younger patients.

You should receive your first invitation for screening before you turn 53. You won’t usually be invited for breast screening once you’re over 70. But you can refer yourself for a mammogram by contacting your local breast screening unit directly.

You may be offered a mammogram once a year if you’re under 50 and have a higher-than-normal risk of developing breast cancer. Your risk of breast cancer might be higher if:

  • genetic tests show you’re carrying a gene associated with breast cancer
  • breast or ovarian cancer runs in your family

Speak to your GP if you’re worried about your risk of breast cancer. They may refer you to specialist genetic services or a breast clinic for further assessment.

Deciding on breast screening

If you’ve been offered breast screening as part of the national programme, it can be an important opportunity to check for any problems. But it’s your choice whether or not to attend, and it’s important to understand and weigh up the potential benefits and risks of breast screening. We’ve listed some points to consider below.

If you have any questions about going for a mammogram, you can contact your local breast screening unit. You can also ask your GP for advice if you need help deciding whether or not to have breast screening.

Benefits of breast screening

Breast screening has several benefits.

  • It can save lives. It’s estimated that for every 180 people screened, one life is saved. This is because breast cancer is spotted and treated earlier.
  • Early breast cancer is usually easier to treat and may need less aggressive treatment. For example, you may be able to have surgery that preserves more of your breast tissue if your cancer is spotted early.
  • If breast screening doesn’t find anything wrong, this can be reassuring.

Risks of breast screening

There are certain risks of breast screening that it’s important to be aware of.

  • Screening can pick up on breast cancers and pre-cancerous changes that would never have caused you any harm (overdiagnosis). You may end up having unnecessary treatment (overtreatment). This happens to about three in every 200 people who are screened every 3 years.
  • You may have a ‘false positive’ result, where you’re called back for more tests, but then found not to have breast cancer. This can be stressful and upsetting, and involve unnecessary investigations.
  • It’s also possible to have a ‘false negative’ result, which means your cancer is missed by the mammogram.
  • You may find having a mammogram uncomfortable. The X-ray plates need to press quite firmly against your breast and your breasts might feel sore for a while afterwards. Your mammographer will try to make you as comfortable as possible. If you have pain after the mammogram, over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol might help.
  • You’ll be exposed to a small amount of radiation during the mammogram. Over your lifetime, this very slightly increases your risk of breast cancer.

Preparing for a mammogram

If you’re having a screening mammogram, you’ll have it at a special breast screening unit. This may be at a:

  • hospital
  • clinic
  • community centre
  • mobile unit

A diagnostic mammogram is when you’ve been referred by your doctor because you have breast cancer symptoms. This type of mammogram is usually done at a specialist breast clinic with other tests. For more information about diagnostic mammograms, see our results section.

Your mammogram will be carried out by a female healthcare professional called a mammographer.

You don’t need to do anything to prepare before your mammogram, and you can eat and drink as usual before your appointment. But a few things to consider are:

  • wearing clothes that are easy to remove because you’ll need to undress to the waist for your mammogram
  • not using any talcum powder or a spray deodorant on the day because these can affect the mammogram

If you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or have breast implants, let the breast screening unit know before your appointment. Implants can make it harder to see some of your breast tissue in the images taken during the mammogram. Contact the screening unit to let them know before your appointment if you have an implant.

What happens during a mammogram?

When you arrive at your appointment, your mammographer will check your details, explain what will happen, and answer any questions you may have. They’ll ask you to confirm if you’re happy to go ahead. Then you’ll be asked to take off any clothes you’re wearing above your waist. This includes your bra if you wear one. You may be given a hospital gown to wear.

You’ll be asked to stand next to the mammogram machine. Your mammographer will then help you to position one of your breasts onto the X-ray plate. They’ll lower a second X-ray plate (compression paddle) onto your breast, pressing it for a few moments. This helps to keep your breast still, and the images clear. The mammogram takes two X-rays of each breast, one from above and one from the side. Your breasts are X-rayed one at a time. The mammographer may need to take further images depending on the size or shape of your breast.

Your breasts are only pressed for a few seconds, but you may find this uncomfortable. The mammographer will work with you to put you at ease, and you have the option to stop at any time.

If you have breast implants, your mammographer may need to use a special technique. This involves taking more images of your breast tissue, to make sure they can see as much as possible. There’s no evidence that an implant has ever burst (ruptured) due to being compressed during a mammogram. However, your mammographer will still take extra care to prevent this happening.

Specialist doctors called radiologists will look at the X-ray images of your breasts, to check for signs of cancer (normally two different doctors will check the images).

Getting the results of your mammogram

Breast screening mammograms

Your mammographer will tell you when you’re likely to get your results, which is usually within two weeks. Most people will have a normal result. If your routine mammogram picks up anything abnormal, you’ll be asked to go to a breast assessment clinic for more tests. Around 4 in 100 people who have a screening mammogram are called back for more tests. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer – most women called back for more tests after a screening mammogram don’t have cancer.

False-positive mammogram

If you’re referred for further tests after your mammogram and found to not have breast cancer, you may have had a false-positive result. While this may cause unnecessary distress, screening is still very important and saves lives.

Diagnostic mammograms

You may have a diagnostic mammogram done at a ‘one-stop clinic’, where you have other tests on the same day. These may include an ultrasound scan and a breast biopsy. A biopsy means taking a sample of cells from the area of concern to test whether it’s cancerous or non-cancerous (benign).

You may receive your diagnostic mammogram results on the same day. But you may have to wait a week or so to receive all your test results. It’s natural to be anxious while waiting for your results.

You might find it helps to talk to those close to you about how you’re feeling. Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support have online forums where you can also talk to others who have been through a similar experience. 

Breast awareness

Even if you’re having regular mammogram screening, it’s still important to be ‘breast aware’. This means knowing what your breasts look and feel like normally, so you’re more likely to notice any changes.

Check your breasts regularly. Look for any change in size or shape, any skin changes such as puckering or dimpling, and any changes in the way your breasts feel. Check the whole of your breast area, including your upper chest, up to the collarbone, and your armpits. You should check your nipples too, looking for any discharge, redness, rash or changes in how they look.

Most changes in your breasts or nipples won’t be signs of cancer. But contact your GP as soon as you can if you notice anything unusual for you, even if a recent mammogram didn’t find anything.

Worried about breast health?

Book a breast check, which includes a mammogram† and get a picture of your current health with our breast health check.

To book or to make an enquiry, call us on 0370 218 8122

However, if you are concerned that you may have a lump, please book an urgent GP appointment for assessment, it may be more appropriate to refer you to a specialist.

A mammogram is a test used in breast screening. It involves taking X-rays to detect signs of breast cancer early.

For more information, see our section about breast screening.

You should try to wear loose clothes as you will need to undress to the waist. Also avoid using talcum powder or a spray deodorant on the day because these can affect the mammogram.

For more information, see our section on preparing for a mammogram.

Routine breast screening has several benefits. But it can come with risks, including picking up changes that wouldn’t have caused you harm. This can lead to you getting treatment that you don’t need. Mammograms can also be uncomfortable.

For more information, see our section on risks of breast screening.

Having a mammogram can feel a bit uncomfortable. Some people do find it more painful, but this should pass quickly.

If you’re worried tell the mammographer when you go for your appointment. They’ll be able to reassure you and try to reduce your chances of feeling any pain.

For more information, see our section on risks of breast screening for more information.

Implants can make it harder to see some of your breast tissue in the images taken during the mammogram. Contact the screening unit to let them know before your appointment if you have an implant. Your mammographer may use a special technique. This involves taking more images of your breast tissue, to make sure they can see as much as possible.

More on this topic

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