Breast screening is routinely offered to women between certain ages in the UK, in order to help detect breast cancer early. The age varies slightly depending on where you live.
Breast mammograms, or ultrasounds, also take place if you have noticed any symptoms of breast cancer and your GP has referred you to a specialist breast cancer clinic for further assessment.
But what age does routine breast cancer screening start, and what should you do if you notice changes to your breasts?
Here’s what you need to know.
At what age does routine breast cancer screening start?
Breast screening is routinely offered to women aged 50 to 71 in England. You will first be invited for screening between the ages of 50 and 53.
However, you may be eligible for breast screening before the age of 50 if you have a very high risk of developing breast cancer.
If you're 71 or over, you will stop receiving screening invitations, but you can still ask to have breast screening.
In Scotland, women between the ages of 50 and 70 are offered breast screening every three years.
This is because:
- the chance of developing breast cancer increases with age
- the test is most effective in women who've reached the menopause
If you're over the age of 70, then you can continue to be screened but you'll have to contact your local screening centre to make an appointment.
In Wales, breast screening in Wales is offered to women between the ages of 50 and 70, and women over that age can ask for an appointment.
Northern Ireland also routinely screens women aged between 50 and 70.
What if I notice changes to my breasts?
Regardless of age, if you notice any symptoms of breast cancer - such as an unusual lump in your breast or any change in the appearance, feel or shape of your breasts - then you should see a GP as soon as possible.
You should see a GP if you notice any of the following:
- A new lump or area of thickened tissue in either breast that was not there before
- A change in the size or shape of one or both breasts
- A discharge of fluid from either of your nipples
- A lump or swelling in either of your armpits
- Dimpling on the skin of your breasts
- A rash on or around your nipple
- A change in the appearance of your nipple, such as becoming sunken into your breast
The doctor will examine you and, if they think your symptoms need further assessment, they will then refer you to a specialist breast cancer clinic.
“If you have symptoms and have been referred to a specialist breast unit by a GP, you'll probably be invited to have a mammogram, which is an X-ray of your breasts. You may also need an ultrasound scan,” explains NHS guidance.
Your doctor may suggest that you only have a breast ultrasound scan if you're under the age of 35, due to younger women having more dense breasts, which means a mammogram is not as effective as an ultrasound at detecting cancer.
Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to produce an image of the inside of your breasts, showing any lumps or abnormalities.
Your breast specialist may also suggest a breast ultrasound if they need to know whether a lump in your breast contains liquid or is solid.
What happens during breast screening?
Breast screening involves having an X-ray (mammogram) at a special clinic or mobile breast screening unit, and it is carried out by a female health practitioner.
Your breasts will be X-rayed one at a time. The breast is placed on the X-ray machine and gently, but firmly, compressed with a clear plate. Two X-rays are then taken of each breast at different angles.
After your breasts have been X-rayed, the mammogram will be checked for any abnormalities and the results will then be sent to you and your GP no later than two weeks after your appointment.
For further information, visit the NHS website.
A version of this article originally appeared on our sister title, The Scotsman.