What Happens When Your Breasts Are Checked For Cancer?

Breast cancer now affects one in nine women in Wales at some point in their lives.
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But if detected early enough, the survival rate is greater than almost all other forms of the disease.

The Welsh NHS offers screening every three years to all women between the ages of 50 and 70 in an effort to: spot the cancer before symptoms appear.

Here we explain exactly what happens during a breast screening session so that women can feel better prepared for the appointment.

Who has breast examination?

Women between the ages of 50 and 70 who are registered with the GP are invited for a screening by Breast Test Wales every three years.

People over 70 can still be screened every three years, but are not automatically invited.

Likewise, those under 50 are not invited, as the risk of developing breast cancer increases later in life. The tests, known as mammograms, are also more difficult to read in younger women because their breast tissue is denser.

However, some women who are at increased risk for breast cancer, for example due to a family history of the disease, may benefit from screening at a younger age.

Breast cancer patients in the South Wales Valleys will benefit from a specialist breast cancer unit to be set up at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital

However, no matter how old you are, if you are concerned about a breast problem, talk to your GP who can refer you to the breast clinic at your nearest hospital.

A spokeswoman for Breast Test Wales said: “We invite each doctor’s practice in turn. You won’t necessarily get your invitation in the year you turn 50. As long as you’re registered with a doctor, we’ll invite you to a breast exam before your 53rd birthday.”

What happens during the screening?

Breast screening uses a test called mammography that takes X-rays of the breasts. The test helps detect breast cancers when they are too small to see or feel.

There are no special preparations for a mammogram, so women can eat and drink normally beforehand.

An X-ray will then ask the patient to stand close to the X-ray machine. They will then place one breast at a time between two flat plates on the machine.

The plates press the chest firmly between them for a few moments, which can be uncomfortable.

Two X-rays are taken of each breast: one from above and one from the side.

What Happens When Your Breasts Are Checked For Cancer?
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What Happens After the Mammogram?

The patient can get dressed and go home immediately after the mammogram. They may have some tenderness in the breasts for several hours.

Two people called film readers, image readers, or radiologists then look at the mammogram pictures. About 96 out of 100 women in the breast screening program have normal results.

If the X-ray is not clear enough or shows abnormal areas, the clinic staff will call the patient back for more tests. In some cases, the mamograms may need to be retaken.

What Happens When Your Breasts Are Checked For Cancer?
An image of a mammogram

What does a mammogram show?

In early stage breast cancer, there may be no lump, but the mammogram may show small areas of calcium in the breast tissue.

These areas of calcium are called calcification. Calcification also develops because of noncancerous changes in the breast.

The skill and experience of the technicians and doctors helps them read the different patterns and decide which may be related to cancer and thus need further testing.

Some people have a condition called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) that shows up on the mammogram. DCIS means that some cells in the lining of the ducts of the breast tissue have turned into cancer cells.

Is there a risk of developing cancer from radiation?

The mammogram includes: passing small amounts of radiation through the chest to form an image.

While radiation can cause cancer, the risk of mammography is described as “very low,” with the benefit much greater than the radiation risk.

The spokeswoman for Breast Test Wales added: “The number of lives saved by detecting and treating breast cancer far exceeds the number of lives lost to cancer caused by radiation.”

The amount of radiation is called the “dose”. The lower the dose, the smaller the risk. However, if the dose is too low, the mammogram may not be clear enough to show whether cancer is present.

“We monitor our equipment to ensure that the right balance is struck between the dose and the quality of the mammogram,” the spokeswoman added.

The lifetime risk of a mammogram causing cancer in a typical 60-year-old woman is about 44 per million, or one in 23,000.

When will the results be given to the patient?

Women usually receive a letter with the results within three weeks of the test.

Occasionally, Breast Test Wales says that screening results take longer than three weeks, for example due to delays in reading the mammogram.

About one in 20 women are asked to come back for more tests. These tests may include more mammograms, a clinical exam, an ultrasound, and possibly a needle biopsy.

What is the survival rate for breast cancer?

When it comes to one-year and five-year survival rates, breast cancer is doing very well.

Between 2010 and 2014, 95% of breast cancer patients survived for a year or more, and 83.8% survived for five years or more.

Five-year survival rates for various cancers

Public Health Wales

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