The Who, Why, and When of Breast Cancer Screenings

According to the NHS, an estimated one in eight adult women are diagnosed with breast cancer throughout their lifetime. In 2015, more than 55,000 cases of new, invasive breast cancers were reported, with fatalities amounting to more than 11,000 adults. Breast cancer presents in different ways for women, with some types more severe than others. However, the opportunities for treatment to beat breast cancer for women who receive an early diagnosis are getting better each year. With early intervention, the breast cancer survival rate has increased to 78% in recent years. Breast cancer screenings are an integral part of the early diagnosis process, as they have the potential to detect cancerous cells that cannot be seen or felt otherwise.

In the UK, women are encouraged to get breast cancer screenings more frequently as they age because the likelihood of developing the disease increases over a lifetime. While screenings are important, there are risks including overdiagnosis and false positives that can lead to frustrating outcomes. Women who are improperly diagnosed may undergo surgery that is not necessary to stay healthy, so it is critical to understand the ins and outs of breast cancer screenings thoroughly.

Screening Guidelines and Timeframes

In the simplest terms, breast cancer screening is the process of undergoing a breast exam to detect cancer before symptoms arise. The screening involves a mammogram, which is an x-ray of the breast tissue that pinpoints problem areas that may be cancerous. Recent studies show that regular mammography screenings of women with no previous symptoms of breast cancer lowers the number of deaths by 30%. However, because of the risks of screenings, not everyone is encouraged to get breast cancer screenings regularly. Here are a few guidelines for who should receive screening and when it should be done.

General Guidelines

Women between the ages of 25 and 40 should receive an annual breast examination by their doctor, but not necessarily a mammogram. Those over 40 should get a breast cancer screening including a mammogram, up until age 70. For women who have dense breast tissue, an ultrasound may also be part of the process. All women are encouraged to perform monthly self-examinations at home, both to become familiar with their body and to identify any lumps or changes to the breast tissue over time. These recommendations are for women who are at average risk of breast cancer.

Average Risk Patients

Women who have an average risk of breast cancer have no current symptoms of the disease, as well as no history of invasive breast cancer in the past. There is also no family history of breast cancer, nor any evidence of hereditary issues that could lead to breast cancer in the future. For average-risk adults, breast cancer screenings are encouraged every three years.

Above Average Risk Patients

The screening guidelines for above-average risk women differ given the higher potential for developing the disease. This means there is a family history of breast cancer, abnormal cells in the milk duct, a genetic predisposition, or atypical hyperplasia (a benign health condition affecting the breast tissue). Women who have higher than average risk should have a clinical breast exam with their doctor every six months, starting as early as age 25. An annual mammogram is also suggested, as well as additional testing or imaging to detect cancerous cells.

In recent years, the NHS has firmed up the guidelines for breast cancer screening through the creation of an invitation system for women of a certain age. Those between 47 and 73 are invited to have a screening every three years automatically, so long as they are registered with a GP. However, a group of experts in medical negligence explains that a recently discovered computer error meant an estimated 450,000 women did not receive these invitations. A delay in diagnosis because no screening takes place can have devastating effects on women and their families, and ultimately, lead to an unnecessary death if the cancer is not detected at all. For this reason, recognising the screening guidelines is crucial for women, regardless of their level of risk.

Being Proactive

The first step in avoiding the negative impact of breast cancer is to understand the risk as an individual. If there is any family history or other cause for concern, it is imperative to speak with a GP regarding these realities and be sure to follow up with scheduled breast exams and screenings per the doctor’s orders. Additionally, self-examinations are a crucial part of the diagnosis process, but they are only beneficial when conducted on a regular basis. Any abnormal swelling, tenderness, or lumps need to be brought to the attention of a GP as soon as possible. Following up with screenings is the final step, whether at average or high risk. Breast cancer can be treated successfully when detected early on, giving many women hope for a healthy future.