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Mammography screening

Mammography is an X-ray of the breasts. Screening mammography is used to detect changes that have occurred in a woman's breasts when she has no breast symptoms.

You will meet the health professional carrying out your procedure to discuss your care. It may differ from what is described here as it will be designed to meet your individual needs. Details of the procedure may also vary from country to country.

How a mammogram is carried out

About

About

Mammography is a technique used to take X-ray images of your breasts. The X-ray images are called mammograms.

You may need to have a mammography if:

  • you have no breast symptoms - this is called screening mammography
  • you have breast symptoms - this is called diagnostic mammography

What is breast cancer screening?


Breast cancer screening uses mammography to detect signs of breast cancer early on; before you are able to notice them.

Breast cancer screening can be carried out in a number of settings, including at a special breast cancer screening unit, in hospital, at a clinic or in a mobile unit.

Bupa doesn’t offer mammography to women under the age of 40 as Bupa believes the benefits do not outweigh the risks. In women aged 35 to 39 years very few cancers would be detected, but many women would receive false-positive test results and have unnecessary, invasive tests.

Benefits and risks

Benefits and risks

Deciding on breast screening


It's your choice whether or not to have breast cancer screening. To make an informed decision, it's important that you're aware of the benefits and risks of mammography.

Benefits


Screening reduces the number of women who die from breast cancer.

Most cancers picked up during screening are at an early stage. Early detection of breast cancer makes treatment easier, so there is a good chance that you will make a full recovery.

A recent review of research suggests that for every 2,000 women who are invited to breast cancer screening over a period of 10 years, up to six women will live for longer because of it.

Risks


It's important to remember that, although mammography is the best way of detecting early breast cancer, it isn't a perfect test. Sometimes signs of breast cancer can be missed, despite the test being done correctly.

Sometimes, screening can show possible signs of breast cancer when in fact there is no problem. If this happens, you will be asked to have further tests, which may cause unnecessary worry.

There is a chance that you could be wrongly diagnosed with breast cancer or treated for breast cancer that would never have caused you any problems. If this happens, you may have unnecessary cancer treatment. A recent review of research suggests that for every 2,000 women who are invited to breast cancer screening over a period of 10 years, 10 women may go on to have breast cancer treatment they don't need.

Mammography exposes you to a small amount of radiation. However, this is around the same as the radiation you're exposed to naturally from the environment over a few months to a year, and is considered to be safe.

How it works

How it works

Preparing for your mammography


Don't use any spray-on deodorant or talcum powder on the day of your mammography, as this could affect the mammogram.

If you're pregnant, or think you might be, you must let the staff know. The radiation from the scan may affect your unborn baby. The staff will decide whether or not it's safe for you to have a mammography. If they decide to go ahead, you may be given a lead apron to wear. This will cover your lower abdomen (tummy) and protect your unborn baby from any radiation.

You must also let the staff know if you have breast implants. If you have implants, the procedure may need to be adapted slightly so that as much of your breast tissue as possible is shown on the mammogram.

About the procedure


You will be guided through the procedure by a radiographer (or radiologic technologist – a health professional trained to perform imaging procedures).

Mammograms are taken using an X-ray machine called a mammography unit.

You will need to undress to your waist. You will be asked to place your breasts on a flat plate on the mammography unit, one at a time. There will be another flat plate above your breast. The plate above your breast will move down and your breast will be pressed in between the two plates while the mammograms are taken.

Your breasts need to be compressed to keep them still, and so that a clear image can be taken using the lowest possible level of radiation. You may find the compression uncomfortable or a bit painful, but it will only last for a few minutes.

Two mammograms will be taken of each breast, one from above and one from the side. You will be asked to stay still while each mammogram is taken. Once all four have been taken, you will be able to get dressed and go.

The radiographer will be behind a screen while your mammograms are taken. He or she will be able to see and hear you at all times, so you can let him or her know if there are any problems.
The whole procedure should take around half an hour.

Results

Results

You may get the results of your mammography within one to two weeks, but it can sometimes take longer.

If there are any signs of an abnormality on your mammogram, you will be asked to have further tests. If you're called back, try not to worry. The majority of women who are called back after screening do not have breast cancer.

Breast awareness


Even if you're having regular breast screening, it's important to be breast aware so that you notice any changes in your breasts.

Mammography doesn't pick up every case of breast cancer. If you notice any breast changes or symptoms, see a doctor, even if a recent mammogram didn't show any changes in your breasts.

Sources

Sources

  • Mammogram factsheet from Cancer Research UK, accessed 21 November 2008
  • Breast Screening - The Facts. Department of Health, accessed 21 November 2008. Download the leaflet (PDF) 
  • Breast screening. Macmillan Cancer Support, accessed 2 December 2008
  • Gøtzsche P, Nielsen M. Screening for breast cancer with mammography. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2006(4). DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001877.pub2.
  • Disadvantages and risks of breast screening. Macmillan Cancer Support, accessed 19 March 2009
  • Beers MH, Fletcher AJ, Porter R, et al., The MERCK Manual of Medical Information. 2nd ed. New York: Pocket Books, 2003
  • Macmillan Cancer Support, Common questions about breast screening, accessed 19 March 2009
  • The mammogram. Macmillan Cancer Support, accessed 21 November 2008
  • Wald NJ, Law MR. Response to Gotzsche. Rapid response to: Breast screening: the facts - or maybe not. BMJ 2009; 338: 446-8.
  • Yankaskas BC, Haneuse S, Kapp JM, et al. Performance of first mammography examination in women younger than 40 years. J Natl Cancer Inst 2010. doi: 10.1093/jnci/djq090

This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Bupa doctors. This content was compiled by Bupa based on clinical information and practice current as at the stated date of publication. Content is likely to reflect clinical practice in a particular geographical region (as indicated by the sources cited) – accordingly, it may not reflect clinical practice in the reader’s country of habitation. This content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. Photos and videos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition.

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