Breast screening - an overview
Breast screening is offered to women aged 50 -70. Screening involves taking mammograms (x-rays of your breast) to detect breast cancer. The earlier breast cancer is detected, the better the chances of successful treatment. Breast cancer can occur at any age but risk increases with age.
Coronavirus: restoration and recovery of the Breast Cancer Screening Programme
Routine breast cancer screening was temporarily paused from the second week in March 2020 to 20 July 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The four-month pause resulted in a backlog of women awaiting screening.
Also, the screening programme will not be able to screen the same number of women as it did before the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, due to the need for social distancing and appropriate infection control measures.
It will therefore take many months to get the programme up and running at normal levels again.
Northern Ireland Breast Screening Programme
The Northern Ireland Breast Screening Programme is for women who have no signs or symptoms of breast disease. Women aged 50-70 who are registered with a GP are invited every three years.
You may not receive an invite for screening in the year you turn 50, but should receive one before your 53rd birthday.
If you are registered with a GP and the practice has your correct details, then you will automatically receive an invitation. You don't need to contact anyone but it is important your GP has your correct details.
If you turn 50 in the year that your GP practice is called for screening you may be invited before you turn 50.
Checks are also made to identify women who have moved into the area or who are overdue screening. These women are offered an appointment to attend for screening. You can contact the local screening unit if you think you are due a mammogram.
If you are over 70 you will stop receiving screening invitations.
You can still have breast screening once you are over 70 if you want to. You can arrange an appointment by contacting your local screening unit.
Screening is carried out in many locations across Northern Ireland. You will be sent an appointment in the post. If your appointment date, time or location don’t suit, you can ask for a new appointment by contacting your screening unit
If you do not attend your first appointment a second appointment will be offered. If you fail to attend this appointment you will be invited again in three years’ time.
The screening programme does not operate on a walk-in basis. If you are concerned about your breast health you should contact your GP immediately.
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Breast screening does not prevent breast cancer
Breast screening does not prevent breast cancer. It helps detect breast cancer at an early stage when treatment may be more successful.
Breast cancer can develop at any time and some women can develop it between screening visits. You should check your breasts regularly for any changes. If you have any concerns contact your GP, even if you have had a recent mammogram.
Breast screening locations
Breast screening is carried out at both static and mobile units throughout Northern Ireland.
Breast screening process and getting your results
Breast screening usually takes less than 30 minutes and is carried out by a mammographer (a mammographer is a radiographer).
You and your GP should get your screening results within two weeks. If you don’t hear anything by this time, you can phone your breast screening unit to find out about your results.
If your result is normal, it will be three years until your next screening appointment.
Getting called back after screening results
Some women (about four in 100) are called back to the breast screening unit after their first mammogram for further tests. This does not necessarily mean there’s something wrong - three out of four women recalled have normal results after these further tests.
Self-examination between appointments
Breast cancer can develop between screening visits so it’s important to check your breasts regularly for changes. You should become familiar with how your breasts normally look and feel so you can detect changes.
Screening for women with very high risk of breast cancer
Breast surveillance screening is offered to women who have been assessed by a specialist in genetics, family history, or oncology and are considered at very high risk of breast cancer.
Women may have an increased risk of developing breast cancer because of a genetic disorder (usually the BRCA gene) or because they had radiotherapy to their chest when younger.
Women in the Very High Risk Breast Surveillance Screening Programme may:
- be offered annual mammography, MRI, or both, depending on age and specific level of risk
- begin screening at an earlier age than routine breast screening
- attend for screening at a Specialist Imaging Unit in Antrim Area Hospital
- arrange to attend their local screening unit for surveillance screening (if only mammography screening is required)
Although in September 2020 the title changed from the ‘Higher Risk Breast Surveillance Screening Programme’ to the ‘Very High Risk Breast Surveillance Screening Programme’ following national guidance, this does not mean any increase in cancer risk for those in the programme.
If you think you may have an increased risk of breast cancer, talk to your GP so you can be referred to a hospital Family History Clinic.
The clinic may refer you for genetic testing if they feel it's appropriate.
You can get further information in the leaflet at this link:
The Very High Risk Breast Screening Unit at Antrim Area Hospital may be contacted on:
- phone: 028 9442 4426.
Genetic Medicine, A Floor, Belfast City Hospital may be contacted on: