Benefits and risks

The NHS offers screening to save lives from breast cancer. Screening does this by finding breast cancers at an early stage, when they're too small to see or feel.

But it does have some risks.

Screening also doesn't prevent you getting breast cancer, and it may not help if you already have advanced stage breast cancer.

It's up to you to decide if you want to have breast screening.

Benefits of breast screening

Breast screening helps identify breast cancer early. The earlier the condition is found, the better the chances of surviving it.

You're also less likely to need a mastectomy (breast removal) or chemotherapy if breast cancer is detected at an early stage.

Risks of breast screening

Overtreatment

Some women who have screening will be diagnosed and treated for breast cancer that would never have otherwise caused them harm.

Read about breast cancer treatment, including potential side effects.

Unnecessary distress

Following screening, about 1 in 25 women will be called back for further assessment.

Being called back doesn't mean you definitely have cancer. The first mammogram may have been unclear.

Most women who receive an abnormal screening result are found not to have breast cancer. These women may experience unnecessary worry and distress.

About 1 in 4 women who are called back for further assessment are diagnosed with breast cancer.

Missed diagnosis

There's a small chance that you'll receive a negative (all clear) mammogram result when cancer is present.

Breast screening picks up most breast cancers, but it misses breast cancer in about 1 in 2,500 women screened.

Radiation

A mammogram is a type of X-ray, and X-rays can, very rarely, cause cancer.

During a mammogram, your breasts are exposed to a small amount of radiation (0.4 millisieverts, or mSv).

For comparison, in the UK, a person receives a dose of 2.2 mSv a year from natural background radiation.

But the benefits of screening and early detection are thought to outweigh the risks of having the X-ray.

Weighing up the possible benefits and risks of breast screening

There's debate about how many lives are saved by breast screening and how many women are diagnosed with cancers that wouldn't have become life threatening.

The numbers below are the best estimates from a group of experts who have reviewed the evidence.

Saving lives from breast cancer

Screening saves about 1 life from breast cancer for every 200 women who are screened.

This adds up to about 1,300 lives saved from breast cancer each year in the UK.

Finding cancers that would never have caused a woman harm

About 3 in every 200 women screened every 3 years from the age of 50 to 70 are diagnosed with a cancer that would never have been found without screening, and would never have become life threatening.

This adds up to about 4,000 women each year in the UK who are offered treatment they didn't need.

What this means

Overall, for every 1 woman who has her life saved from breast cancer, about 3 women are diagnosed with a cancer that would never have become life threatening.

Researchers are trying to find better ways to tell which women have breast cancers that will be life threatening and which women have cancers that won't.

Who's at higher risk of breast cancer?

The causes of breast cancer aren't fully understood, making it difficult to say why one woman may develop breast cancer and another may not.

But there are risk factors known to affect your likelihood of developing breast cancer.

Some of these you can't do anything about, but there are some you can change.

Learn about the risk factors for breast cancer.

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