23 Feb, 2023
According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the second most common cancer in women (after skin cancer). The good news is that when caught early, breast cancer is often treatable, and screening mammograms are available from age 50 in the UK via your NHS GP.
However, recent research (2022) has found that regular breast screening from the age of 40-49 can find developing breast cancer at an early stage, open the door to treatment, and improve survival rates.
While a breast screening mammogram cannot prevent breast cancer, it can spot the early signs, and help you get an early diagnosis. This is why many women seek out private breast screening providers.
Private mammograms are the best way for younger women (aged 40-49) with no breast cancer symptoms, to get an early breast screening, and regular mammograms thereafter.
This is because the UK NHS only offers regular screening from the age of 50, or earlier if you think you've found a sign of breast cancer.
The benefits of an early mammogram (aged 40-49) are:
There are some cases in which a private breast screening mammogram would not be a suitable scan. This is because you would need diagnostic tests and support, rather than a preventative screening scan.
If you are experiencing any of the following breast symptoms, you should make an appointment with your GP urgently, and not wait for a mammogram screening:
These issues might not be anything serious to worry about, but they could be signs of breast cancer. To make sure you get the correct care, you need to have an urgent diagnostic mammogram, not a routine breast screening.
If you are under 40, you would also not be eligible for breast screening, because younger women tend to have more dense breast tissue, which makes it harder to find cancers with an X-ray scan.
A breast screening mammogram can find breast cancers early. This is because you don't need to wait for a lump or breast problems to show, and you can also have regular screenings to check everything is OK if you have a family history of breast cancer.
Furthermore, some types of breast cancer, such as non-invasive (carcinoma in situ), do not tend to cause lumps and may not always be noticeable until they become more advanced.
Mammograms can also detect cancer long before a tumour is large enough to be felt during a self-exam, or before cancer cells begin to spread into the surrounding breast tissue.
This is another reason why the sooner you start having regular mammograms, the better the chances are to find breast cancer early and receive the correct treatment.
Women aged 40-49 in the UK can have a private mammogram every 12 months. This is because mammograms use radiation in the form of x rays, and exposure to them must be carefully considered and not overdone.
However, x rays used for mammography are low dose x rays, meaning they are not as strong as the x ray scan you would have on a broken bone. This means yearly exposure is safe, and the benefit outweighs the risk.
Mammograms are safe for women with breasts of all sizes, and for people with breast implants. Although, you should tell your mammographer if you have breast implants, as a mammogram may be less effective at spotting anomalies behind your implants.
If you are pregnant, you should let your scanning provider know before attending your mammogram. Mammograms are generally still safe for pregnant women, as reduced radiation means reduced risk. However, due to the changes in the density of the breasts during pregnancy, a mammogram may not be as effective at identifying signs of cancer.
When caught early, breast cancer can often be treated successfully. Breast cancer on a mammogram typically looks like a small, round or oval mass that is darker than the surrounding tissue.
Cancers develop over time, and they may differ in appearance depending on how early you have a breast cancer screening. Typically, cancers in the breasts will show up as an area of increased density on a mammogram image.
However, some breast cancers are difficult to detect with a mammogram because they don’t form lumps or masses. Instead, they grow into the surrounding tissues and spread out. So while an increase in density is typically associated with some breast cancers, it is not always present.
Sometimes, the quality of mammogram images can be affected by chemicals found in deodorant, which is why you will be advised not to wear deodorant in the lead up to your scan.
A mammographer is a highly trained professional who carries out your screening mammogram. They will help you get ready for your scan and will explain the procedure, but they aren't the person who looks at your images to see if there are any abnormalities.
Instead, a specially trained doctor called a radiologist will interpret the mammography images generated. Radiologists will view the images from different angles to get a complete x-ray picture of each breast.
They will see if they can identify any anomalies, or if the scan is normal, and will write a report of their findings. This might include recommendations for further tests to either confirm or rule out a breast cancer diagnosis, such as a biopsy.
If an anomaly is found, it is important to take the results to your doctor as soon as possible, and the scanning provider will usually also contact your GP to fast-track any follow-up appointments or tests. After a diagnosis is either confirmed or ruled out, you will be able to access treatments, such as surgery or chemotherapy.
While a mammography procedure can cause nervousness or anxiety, it is reassuring to know that only about 4 in every 100 women who have a mammogram end up being recalled for further testing, and only about 1 of those 4 women will get a cancer diagnosis.
Private breast cancer screening can offer you some benefits that you may not get from an NHS screening. For starters, women can start having private screening mammograms up to 10 years earlier than on the NHS. Privately, you can often choose the time and date that works best for you, which is a benefit if you’re busy or have a packed schedule.
A private mammography facility might also offer you a more modern X-ray machine with a plastic plate rather than a metal one. This provides a more comfortable and relaxing experience, and typically more time is given to you if you’re feeling anxious about the process.
Breast cancer is more treatable if it is found early. Mammogram screening tests can't prevent it, but can be used to diagnose breast cancer before any symptoms become visible.
Most mammograms reveal normal results, but the peace of mind of a yearly check can be worthwhile. If you are an asymptomatic woman aged between 40-49, and haven't had a mammogram in the past 12 months, you're an ideal candidate for a private breast cancer screening in the UK.
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