Overview

Breast screening is a test for breast cancers that are too small to see or feel.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. About 1,000 women die of breast cancer every year in Scotland.

Breast screening doesn't prevent cancer, but can detect cancer early and reduce the number of women who die from it.

If you have symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19), or have been in contact with someone who does, call the number on your invitation to rearrange your appointment.

Who has a higher chance?

Older women have a higher chance of getting breast cancer, particularly after the menopause. It can also affect younger women.

There are a number of factors which increase the chance of developing breast cancer, including:

You might also have a higher chance if members of your family have had breast cancer, particularly at a young age.

More about the causes of breast cancer

Who'll be screened?

In Scotland, only women between the ages of 50 and 70 are offered breast screening every 3 years.

Screening isn’t offered to younger women because:

  • the chance of developing breast cancer increases with age
  • the test is most effective in women who've reached the menopause

Women aged 71 and over are not routinely invited for breast screening. There isn’t clear evidence that the benefits of screening women in this age-group outweigh the potential risks of harm. For example, diagnosing and treating a breast cancer that would otherwise not cause harm within a woman’s lifetime.

You can now self-refer for a breast screening appointment if:

  • you’re aged 71-74 (up until your 75th birthday)
  • you’ve previously had breast cancer and have been discharged from yearly follow up mammograms

NHS Scotland is working hard to increase the number of appointments and will continue to monitor and regularly review self-referrals. This phased approach allows us to prioritise appointments for 50-70 year olds, for whom screening is recommended.

It’s important that everyone is aware of the signs and symptoms of cancer, and to report any concerns you have to your GP.

Find out more about the symptoms of breast cancer

Breast screening for transgender and non-binary people

What does it involve?

The most effective way of testing for breast cancer is using breast X-rays (mammograms).

The test takes a few minutes and might feel uncomfortable but shouldn't be painful. You should be able to carry on with your day as normal afterwards.

More about taking the test

Your screening invitation

GP practices only take part in the screening programme every 3 years, so you might not get your first screening invitation until you're 53.

Contact your local screening centre if you:

  • haven't had your first invitation by your 53rd birthday
  • have moved house or GP practice and not had an invitation in the last 3 years

The Scottish Breast Screening Programme has introduced a text message reminder service. This will remind you about your upcoming breast screening appointment. If you'd like to receive these reminders, please make sure the Breast Screening Centre has a record of your current phone number.

When to contact the screening centre

If you decide to take up the invitation, contact your local screening centre as soon as possible if you:

  • want to have someone else with you during the scan for support, as mobile screening units may not have room for additional people
  • have a disability
  • need an interpreter or any other help
  • have any concerns or want to discuss anything about your appointment
  • want to check they have your phone number for text message reminders about your appointment 

You should also contact the screening centre if you:

  • have breast implants
  • have had breast cancer
  • have had a mammogram within the last 6 months

Choosing not to be screened

If you decide not to take the test, you should let the screening centre know in plenty of time.

You'll be invited for screening again in 3 years. If you don't want to be invited again, ask the screening centre for a disclaimer form so that your name can be removed from the system.

If you've completed a disclaimer or decided not to be screened at this time, but change your mind later, you can arrange an appointment by contacting your local screening centre

Benefits and risks

As with any test, there are benefits and risks involved in breast screening. It’s important that you’re aware of these before accepting a screening invitation.

Benefits

Breast screening can find breast cancer before any symptoms become noticeable. The earlier breast cancer is found, the less treatment is needed and the better your chance of survival.

Risks

Screening saves lives from breast cancer, but it does have some risks:

  • some women will be diagnosed and treated for breast cancer that wouldn't otherwise have been found or caused them harm
  • a small number of cancers may not show up on the breast X-ray (mammogram)

It’s important that you repeat the screening test every 3 years. And regularly check your breasts for any changes that could indicate breast cancer— like a lump or swelling in your breasts or armpits, or changes in your nipple.

Mammograms

The X-rays used in breast screening can cause breast cancer, but this is rare.

For every 14,000 woman screened regularly for 10 years, 1 woman may develop breast cancer because of this radiation.

Taking the test

The breast screening test involves taking images of your breasts using X-rays (mammogram) and checking them for changes.

The breast screening test is done by female health professionals only.

You'll have the test at your nearest breast screening centre, or mobile screening unit. Your appointment will usually take no more than 30 minutes.

Before the test

When you arrive for your appointment, the mammographer will check your details and explain the test to you. You'll have an opportunity to ask questions.

You should wear a loose fitting top as the mammographer will ask you to undress from the waist up. You can cover up when you're not having the mammogram.

You shouldn't use talcum powder or spray deodorant before the test.

A less common side effect of the coronavirus vaccine is swollen glands in the armpit or neck on the same side as the arm where you had the vaccine. If you’re due for breast screening please mention that you’ve had your vaccine when you attend. There’s no need to delay your appointment. 

During the test

Your mammographer will X-ray one breast at a time. To do this she'll:

  • position your breast between 2 special plates on the mammogram machine
  • press the breast firmly between the plates for a few seconds
  • take 2 pictures of each breast — you should stay as still as possible while she takes the pictures

A mammogram only takes a few minutes.

What happens during a mammogram (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOplwRPhq1o)

Watch Elaine C. Smith talk about her own experience of having a mammogram

After the test

The screening centre will send your results by letter within 3 weeks. They'll also send your results to your GP.

If you don't get a letter within 3 weeks, contact your local screening centre.

Your mammograms

The screening centre will keep your mammograms for at least 9 years.

Your mammograms could be used for:

  • training
  • research
  • quality assurance

They'll remove your personal information before sharing your mammograms.

Test results

You'll usually get the results of your breast X-ray (mammogram) by letter within 3 weeks. Your GP will also get a copy of your results.

If you haven't received your results within 3 weeks, please contact your local screening centre.

Negative result

Most women who take the test have a negative result, which means:

  • no changes were found in their breasts
  • there’s no signs of breast cancer

If this is the case:

  • you won’t need any further investigations or treatment
  • you'll be invited to be screened again within 3 years

If you notice any changes in your breasts before your next screening appointment, contact your GP.

Positive result

About 7 out of 100 women who take the test have a positive result. This means the test found changes in the breast that need investigating.

Further tests

If you have a positive result, the screening centre will invite you for further tests. This can include:

  • a breast examination
  • more mammograms
  • an ultrasound scan

Some women will also need to have a tissue sample taken for testing. This is called a biopsy.

Positive for breast cancer

The results of these tests can lead to a breast cancer diagnosis. If you test positive for breast cancer, your GP will refer you to a team of breast cancer specialists for treatment.

Only 1 in 5 women that have further tests will have breast cancer.

Inconclusive result

If your mammogram isn't clear or of a good enough quality, they'll arrange an appointment for you to have further X-rays. This is called a technical recall, and can happen if breast tissue was missed or moved during the test.

Further information

If you're unsure about anything or have questions about breast screening, phone:

Breast screening leaflets

Public Health Scotland has produced leaflets about breast screening in Scotland.

They explain why screening is offered and what happens if the test shows changes needing investigation.

The leaflets are also available in alternative languages, Easy Read, British Sign Language (BSL) and audio format.

Email phs.otherformats@phs.scot to request other formats.

View all leaflet versions.

 

Last updated:
31 August 2022

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