Breast screening - an overview
Breast screening involves taking mammograms (x-rays of your breast) to detect breast cancer. The earlier breast cancer is detected, the better chances of successful treatment. Breast cancer can occur at any age but risk increases with age. Find out if you will be offered screening or how to request it.
Coronavirus (COVID-10): impact on the breast cancer screening programme
Routine breast cancer screening was temporarily paused for four months in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The number of women the programme can currently screen is reduced due to the need for social distancing and appropriate infection control measures.
This has led to a backlog of women awaiting screening.
Breast screening appointments
The Northern Ireland breast screening programme is for women who have no signs or symptoms of breast disease.
Women aged 50 to70, who are registered with a GP, are invited every three years.
As women are invited by GP practice every three years, around a third of women will be invited for the first time before their 51st birthday (the year they turn 50), a third before their 52nd birthday (the year they turn 51) and the rest before their 53rd birthday (the year they turn 52).
All eligible women should be invited for the first time before their 53rd birthday.
As the women who are invited before their 51st birthday are invited in the year they turn 50, some women will be invited for breast screening for the first time when they are 49.
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 have recently moved into an area or are overdue screening, you will be offered a screening appointment.
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. If you want breast screening, you can arrange an appointment by contacting your local screening unit.
Screening is carried out in a number of 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 different appointment by contacting your screening unit.
If you do not attend your first offered appointment you will be notified by follow-up letter. If you wish to make a further appointment you need to contact the appropriate unit and you will be offered the next available appointment.
If you do not contact the unit you will routinely be invited again in three years. However, if you change your mind before then you can contact your local breast screening unit to arrange an appointment.
Breast screening is by appointment only. 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.
This video is available with:
There is also a video available for women with learning disabilities at:
Breast screening does not prevent breast cancer. It helps detect breast cancer at an early stage when treatment can 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. The locations for breast screening are at:
- Belfast and South Eastern area breast screening unit
- Northern area breast screening unit
- Southern area breast screening unit
- Western area breast screening unit
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 who specialises in breast x-rays).
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 at 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: