FAQs - Breast cancer screening

I haven't been called for breast screening even though I'm over 50. Do I need to contact anyone?

The NHS Breast Screening Programme calls women from doctors' practices in turn.

This means not every woman receives her invitation as soon as she is 50. It'll be some time between the ages of 50 and 53.

If you're registered with a GP and the practice has your correct details, you'll automatically receive an invitation.

You don't need to contact anyone, but you might like to ask your surgery when the women on their list are next due for screening.

Read more about when screening is offered.

I've found a lump in my breast. Can you tell me how I can get a mammogram?

The NHS Breast Screening Programme is a population screening programme that invites all women aged 50 to 70 as a matter of routine. It isn't aimed at women who already have symptoms.

If you have found something that worries you, don't wait to be offered screening – see your GP. He or she will decide whether or not you need to be referred for further investigations or treatment.

Read more about the symptoms of breast cancer.

My sister lives abroad and she gets more frequent breast screening. Why doesn't this happen in the UK?

A large research trial in 2002 concluded that the NHS Breast Screening Programme has got the interval between screening and invitations about right at 3 years, compared with more frequent screening.

The trial was organised through the United Kingdom Coordinating Committee on Cancer Research (UKCCCR) and was supported by the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health.

The results from the UKCCCR Randomised Trial are published in the European Journal of Cancer, 2002.

I'm worried that breast screening will hurt because of the size of my breasts...

Don't worry. The mammography practitioners are used to screening women of all sizes and will do their best to minimise any discomfort.

Research has shown that for most women it's less painful than having a blood test and compares with having blood pressure measured.

For women with very large breasts, additional pictures are sometimes needed to ensure that all the breast tissue is included.

Can I walk into the mobile breast screening unit and request a mammogram?

No – the NHS Breast Screening Programme doesn't operate on a walk-in basis. It invites women in the target age group (50 to 70) for routine breast screening every 3 years.

If you're concerned about your breast health, contact your GP.

Why does breast screening stop at 70?

It doesn't. Although women over 70 aren't routinely invited for breast screening, they're encouraged to call their local breast screening unit to request breast screening every 3 years.

Can women with a physical disability be screened?

If you have a disability, contact the breast screening unit before your appointment.

Mammography is a procedure that's technically difficult. You have to be carefully positioned on the X-ray machine, and must be able to hold the position for several seconds.

This may not be possible for women with limited mobility in their upper bodies or who are unable to support their upper bodies unaided.

If you have a disability, your breast screening unit should be able to advise you if screening is technically possible, and on the most appropriate place to be screened. This will usually be at a static unit.

If a mammogram isn't technically possible, you should still remain in the call and recall programme, as any increased mobility at a future date may make screening easier.

If a woman can't be screened, she should be advised on breast awareness.

I am a carer looking after someone who lacks the mental capacity to make their own decisions about screening. They have been invited for breast screening. How should I deal with their invitation?

If the person you care for is unable to make their own decisions about screening, then you, as their carer, should make a "best interests" decision on their behalf.

You'll need to weigh up the benefits of screening, the possible harm to them, and what you think the person would have wanted to do themselves.

You can speak to the person's GP for advice if the person you care for doesn't have the capacity to give their consent.

For example, if they're unable to:

  • understand the screening process
  • make a decision about being screened
  • communicate their wishes

The GP will have access to the person's medical records and knowledge of their overall medical health.

You can ask them about the person's risk of developing the cancer in question, and how screening might affect them.

You should also consider what you think the person themselves would want.

For example:

  • Did they used to go to screening, or express an opinion about it?
  • Did they express more general views about their health and whether they'd want to know if they had a disease or condition?
  • Did they refuse screening in the past?

Paid carers in particular should get advice from family members or friends about the person's views.

If, after all this, you consider that screening is in the best interests of the person you care for, you're within your rights to help that person to be screened.

To help someone with limited capacity understand the screening process, you may find the picture leaflet An easy guide to breast screening helpful.

For more information on making a decision in someone's best interests, see Making decisions: a guide for family, friends and other unpaid carers.

I'm in the process of changing from a man to a woman. I'm over 50. Am I entitled to breast screening?

Individuals who are undergoing male to female gender reassignment may be screened as a self-referral at the request of their GP. If you have a symptom, you should see your GP in the usual way.

If you're going through male to female gender reassignment and are registered as male with your GP, you won't be invited for breast screening.

But if you hae been on long-term hormone therapy, you may be at increased risk of breast cancer. Talk to your GP about referral for a mammogram.

Public Health England has produced a leaflet about NHS Screening Programmes for trans people (PDF, 2.57Mb).

I'm changing from a woman to a man. Will I still be offered breast screening?

If you're going through female to male gender reassignment, you'll continue to be invited for breast screening as long as you're registered as female with your GP, unless you ask to be removed from the programme or have had both breasts removed.

You can read more in Public Health England's leaflet about NHS Screening Programmes for trans people (PDF, 2.57Mb).

What happens to my mammograms after screening?

The NHS Breast Screening programme will keep your mammograms for at least 8 years. These are saved securely.

The screening programme regularly checks records to make sure the service is as good as possible.

Staff in other parts of the health service may need to see your records for this, but your records will only be shared with people who need to see them.

If you want to know the results of these regular checks, you can contact your local screening unit.

Page last reviewed: 27/03/2018
Next review due: 27/03/2021