Nowadays survival rates from breast cancer are significantly higher than they were a few years ago. In part, this is due to a comprehensive screening process which has seen many women routinely screened for breast cancer.
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What does breast screening involve?
When you are invited for breast screening, you will undergo a mammogram, in which each breast is viewed through a specialised X-ray machine to identify any abnormalities. This can enable early detection of cancer before you have physical symptoms.
What are the positives?
Early detection can make a significant difference to your survival rate, and because a mammogram can detect tumours before they become apparent, this can be very important. About 30% of breast cancers are detected through breast screening.
What are the negatives?
Sometimes screening can lead to incorrect diagnoses. A false negative result can lead to tumours being missed. False positives and over-diagnosis (when a non-threatening cancerous lump is diagnosed), can lead to the patient undergoing unnecessary and debilitating treatment, even though the abnormality is not life-threatening and may never have caused problems.
What age is best for beginning breast screening?
Countries vary in the age at which women are routinely screened for breast cancer, but generally the ages fall between 40 and 70. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, breast cancer is much more common in women over 50, with the most likely period between 60 and 64 years. The risk diminishes after you reach the age of 70. Also, the breasts are less easy to screen before the menopause; once the menopause is reached, breast tissue becomes softer and less dense, making it easier to identify abnormalities. If you are not included in a routine screening programme, a private health assessment may put your mind at rest.
What about younger women?
It would be a mistake to think that breast cancer never affects younger women. Some women have an increased likelihood of developing breast cancer at an early age. If you have a family history of early breast cancer it’s important to discuss this with your GP.
Should I examine my own breasts?
Breast cancer can develop at any time. Examining your breasts regularly should be part of your health care routine, so that any abnormalities can be detected and checked quickly. However, it’s important to remember that your breasts can change depending on many factors, such as menstruation, when taking birth control pills or for other reasons, so any change may not be serious.
The survival rate for breast cancer continues to improve, so participating in screening and carrying out self-examination will help any problems to be detected and tackled quickly.