Breast Screening

Views on breast screening

Breast cancer is the most common cancer to affect women* and mammography (breast x-ray) is the only method that has been extensively studied and can detect breast cancer early. The stage at which breast cancer is diagnosed greatly influences survival. In general, the earlier the detection, the greater the chance of survival.

Most women we spoke with had no signs or symptoms and felt healthy before going for breast screening. Many felt that their cancer might not have been detected until they'd found a symptom, such as a lump, if they'd not gone for screening. By this stage, it might have become a much more serious problem and harder to treat. A few women said that they'd had no symptoms but their breast cancer had already affected the lymph glands under their arms. Many of these women believed that breast screening had saved their lives. One woman was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 39. If had she known younger women could get breast cancer, she said that she would have paid to have mammograms sooner, and encouraged other women to do so. Others strongly recommended that women with a family history of breast cancer should be screened (see 'Breast screening and younger women').

All the women we spoke with who'd had breast cancer supported screening and recommended it to other women. However, no screening test is perfect and occasionally cancers may not be seen on mammograms. A few said their mammogram results had been normal but, several months later, they had developed symptoms. Further tests showed that they'd had breast cancer all along but it hadn't shown up on the mammogram. Despite doubts based on their experiences, all these women now supported screening. One said that, although she recommended screening to others, she wanted women to understand its limitations so they would not be falsely reassured (see 'False negative results').

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A few people felt that screening mammograms should be available to women every two years instead of every three. One found out she had breast cancer after a mammogram she'd had as part of a medical research project. She was grateful for breast screening and that project for finding her cancer. She and others believed that, despite some scepticism in the medical field, breast screening saved lives. Others believed that the benefits of breast screening far outweighed any potential risks such as radiation from the x-rays.

One woman didn't attend for routine mammograms after her very first mammogram because she found it extremely painful. Some years later, she had a breast indentation and tests showed that she had breast cancer. She recommended screening and felt that doctors should do more to follow up on women who don't attend for it.

One woman was upset and shocked when she was diagnosed with breast cancer but now feels it was better to know, and felt grateful that her cancer had been detected and treated early. Many women recommended that women should go for routine breast screening and be breast aware.

*(NHS Breast Cancer Screening Programme – Helping you decide leaflet July 2013)
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Last reviewed March 2016.

Last updated March 2016.


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