What happens during a mammogram as women skip breast screenings

Woman having a breast screening/mammogram. (Getty Images)
The government has missed it's breast screening/mammogram target for the fourth year running. (Getty Images)

Women are skipping their mammograms with almost half invited to their first breast cancer screening after turning 50 not showing up.

Figures from NHS England revealed that more than a third (35.4%) of all women invited for a check-up did not attend the appointment in 2022 to 2023, increasing to 46.3% of women who were being invited for the first time.

In 2022-23, a total of 1.93 million women aged 50 to 70 (64.6%) attended screening appointments (within six months of invitation) out of the 2.98 million invited to book a check-up, but this means the NHS missed its 70% uptake target for the fourth consecutive year.

The charity Breast Cancer Now (BCN) said the trend – seen since the pandemic – has resulted in breast cancer cases going undiagnosed.

More than 18,000 cancers have been detected through the breast screening campaign, the NHS said.

But BCN said if the 70% target had been met, a further 160,000 women would have been checked.

Julia Bradbury, pictured, has shared an image of her having a mammogram alongside a health warning. (Getty Images)
Julia Bradbury has been raising awareness about the importance of breast screenings. (Getty Images)

The warning comes as Julia Bradbury recently shared images from her own mammogram as she continues to raise awareness of breast cancer and the increased risks associated with having dense breasts.

The TV presenter, 53, revealed in 2021 that she had been diagnosed with the disease and later underwent a mastectomy during which her breast plus two lymph glands were removed before reconstruction took place.

Susanna Reid also recently shared details of her mammogram appointment, advising viewers that it "wasn't painful in the slightest".

In a bid to encourage viewers to take up their invitations for screening, the 52-year-old presenter gave an update about her experience on Good Morning Britain.

"I went in, and the nurse was absolutely lovely, and it wasn’t in the least bit painful or uncomfortable. I was expecting it to be far, far worse. So if you have been putting it off for that reason, please don’t. Go and get your mammogram done," she urged.

Susanna Reid, pictured, recently gave an update on her mammogram appointment. (Getty Images)
Susanna Reid recently gave an update on her mammogram appointment. (Getty Images)

What is a mammogram?

Breast screening (often referred to as a mammogram) is a breast health check.

"NHS breast screening uses a mammogram, which is an x-ray test, to spot cancers at an early stage when they’re too small to see or feel," explains Professor Cliona Kirwan, chair of Prevent Breast Cancer’s scientific advisory board.

"Breast screening can pick up breast cancer before there are signs or symptoms."

Who can get a mammogram?

In England, breast screening is offered to all women aged 50 to 71 every three years.

However, if you have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer, or have been found to have an increased risk of cancer, you may be eligible for screening before the age of 50.

If you are older than 71, you can still have a screening every three years if you speak with your GP, but you won't automatically be invited.

Similar guidance and services are also available in Scotland and Wales.

Mammograms can help detect breast cancer early. (Getty Images)
Mammograms can help detect breast cancer early. (Getty Images)

What is involved in a mammogram?

The appointment will only take around half an hour and will be over before you know it.

"It’s a good idea to wear loose, comfortable clothing, as you will need to undress to the waist," Professor Kirwan advises. "It’s also worth skipping deodorant on the day of your scan as images are also taken under your armpits and having aluminium around that area can affect the results."

You may be asked to complete a questionnaire about your medical and family history, if you have had previous breast surgery, including breast implants, and if you are having hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Your mammogram will be taken by a female practitioner who will place your breasts one at a time on an X-ray machine and compress them each for a few seconds. Pictures of the breasts will be taken from different angles, including the part around the underarms.

Will it hurt?

Although it may be uncomfortable, Prof Kirwan says it will only last a few seconds and isn’t harmful.

"It may not be the most pleasant procedure, but going for a mammogram will provide peace of mind and can also catch breast cancer at an earlier stage, making it more treatable," she adds.

How long will it take to get results?

You should expect to receive your results no later than two weeks after your mammogram.

"Only around one in 25 women will be called back for further assessment, but don’t panic if you require further testing – it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are facing a cancer diagnosis," Professor Kirwan says.

"You may be recalled if the image taken on your scan wasn’t clear enough, this should be mentioned in your recall letter, and would be referred to as a ‘technical recall’.

"It is more common to be recalled after your first mammogram, as there aren’t any mammograms to compare to."

Women are asked to check their breasts regularly. (Getty Images)
Women are asked to check their breasts regularly. (Getty Images)

The importance of being breast aware

Being ‘breast aware’ means getting to know how your breasts look and feel at different times and telling your doctor straight away if you notice any unusual changes.

It takes only a few minutes to perform and can help detect breast cancers at an earlier stage.

Women must continue to look at and check their breasts regularly, even if they have had a recent mammogram.

Women are encouraged to use the ‘TLC’ method for checking their breasts and can visit Breast Cancer Now for more information:

  • TOUCH your breasts. Can you feel anything new or unusual?

  • LOOK for changes. Does anything look different?

  • CHECK any new or unusual changes with your GP.

More information on NHS breast screening checks is available at www.nhs.uk/conditions/breast-screening-mammogram and you can find your local NHS breast screening service here.

Breast cancer: Read more

Watch: Kelly Hoppen talks candidly about her fear of getting tested for breast cancer before diagnosis