Coronavirus: restoration and recovery of the Breast Cancer Screening Programme
Routine breast cancer screening was temporarily paused from the second week in March 2020.
This was in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of Health has now called for the phased restoration of all paused screening programmes. This has begun and routine breast cancer screening restarted from 20 July 2020.
The four month pause to date has resulted in a backlog of women awaiting screening. In addition, the screening programme will not be able to screen the same number of women as it did before the Covid-19 pandemic.
This is 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.
Breast screening process
A visit to a breast screening unit usually takes less than 30 minutes and a mammogram only takes a few minutes.
Breast screening uses an x-ray test called a mammogram to check the breast for signs of cancer. It can spot cancers that are too small to see or feel. You will be met by a receptionist or a female mammographer who will check your personal details.
At this appointment, all staff at the unit are women.
See video below about what happens at your appointment.
The mammographer will:
- ask about your general health
- ask about any previous breast problems
- ask about previous mammograms
- explain how screening works
- answer any queries you have
You’ll need to undress the top part of your body, including your bra. The mammographer will position you so that each breast is placed in turn on the x-ray machine and gently but firmly compressed with a flat, clear plate.
Having a mammogram can be uncomfortable and some women find it painful. The mammographer will try to minimise discomfort and any pain usually passes quickly.
Typically, each breast will have two mammograms from different angles. Women with larger breasts or implants may need additional mammograms.
You and your GP should get your results within two weeks. If you don’t hear anything by this time, you can phone your breast screening unit to check your results.
Screening for women over 70
If you are over 70 you'll stop receiving screening invitations.
However, you can still have breast screening every three years if you are over 70. You can arrange an appointment by contacting your local screening unit.
Screening process if you have breast implants
A standard mammogram may be less effective if you have breast implants.
Women with breast implants should contact their local unit on the number given in the appointment letter so extra time can be given for their mammograms. A specific technique (the Eklund technique) is used to maximise the amount of breast tissue that can be seen.
It’s important to tell the mammographer if you have implants before you are screened.
Breast screening isn’t a check on your implants. If you have concerns about your implants, contact your GP.
Screening if you have been treated for breast cancer
If you have been treated for breast cancer you will often have annual mammograms for 5 years as part of your follow up care. These mammograms are not part of the screening programme.
If you get an invitation to go for breast screening while you are still attending for annual, follow up mammography you should contact the screening unit to let them know. You do not need to go for breast screening as well.
Once you have finished attending for annual follow up mammography it is important that you come for your 3-yearly screening when invited. This is as long as this screening appointment is more than 6 months after your last annual, follow up mammogram.
If it is within 6 months contact your screening unit. If you have any questions contact your GP or local screening unit.
Attending screening if you are transgender
If you have undergone or are undergoing male to female gender reassignment, you may be screened as a self-referral at the request of your GP. If you have any symptoms you should contact your GP in the usual way.
If you have undergone or are undergoing female to male gender reassignment you will continue to be invited for breast screening as long as you are registered as a woman.
This is unless you ask to be no longer invited for screening or have informed your local breast screening unit that you have had a bilateral mastectomy and no longer have breast tissue.
For further information and advice, contact your local breast screening unit.
Breast screening results
Your results will be sent to you within two weeks. Your GP will also receive a copy. There are three possible results:
- normal (routine) recall - your result is normal and you’ll automatically be invited for screening in three years’ time provided you fall within the screening programme’s age range
- technical recall - the mammograms needs to be repeated for technical reasons
- assessment – 4 in every 100 women are recalled for an appointment at an assessment clinic
You will be called to an assessment clinic if your screening result suggests that further tests are needed. This does not necessarily mean there is something wrong. Three out of four women recalled are given normal results following these additional tests.
Support available during your breast screening appointment
If you have a physical disability
If you have a physical disability you can usually still be screened. You should contact the screening unit when you receive your invitation, to make them aware of your requirements and to seek advice.
When you go for screening you’ll have to be carefully positioned on the x-ray machine, and you must hold the position for several seconds. This may not be possible if you have limited mobility in your upper body or are unable to support your upper body unaided. The mammographer will advise you at the time of screening.
If a mammogram isn’t technically possible, you’ll stay in the programme and be invited again in three years’ time, as any increased mobility may make screening easier. If your mobility improves before you are invited again you can call your local screening centre to arrange an appointment.
There’s no alternative to screening by mammography. If you can’t be screened it’s important that you continue to be breast aware.
If you have a sensory impairment
It’s useful to contact your screening unit with this information so that suitable arrangements can be made. Guide dogs are welcome, but static units may provide more suitable access than mobile units.
If English isn’t your first language
If English isn’t your first language and you require a translator, you can contact the unit using the number on your appointment letter.
There are also several translations of the ‘Breast Awareness: Looking Out for Changes’ leaflets available.