Breast screening

Breast screening is where a mammomgram (an x-ray of the breast) is taken to look for signs of early breast cancer. In Ireland BreastCheck invites eligible women for their free mammogram every two year years. In time, BreastCheck will be available to all women aged 50 to 69. If breast cancer is found early, it is easier to treat and a woman has a high chance of a good recovery. No screening tool is 100 per cent effective and breast screening does not find all breast cancer, but screening in other countries has been shown to lower the number of women dying from breast cancer, and these lives are saved because cancers are diagnosed and treated earlier than they would have been without screening.

What is a mammogram and does it hurt?

A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. The breast is placed between plates and a lever compresses (flattens) the breast for a few seconds while the x-ray is being taken (see poster here). Although every woman’s experience is different most women do not find it painful. The majority of women find it a little uncomfortable and compare it to like having their blood pressure taken. The radiographer will work with the woman to make it as comfortable as possible.

It is very important that the breast is compressed. It makes sure that more of the breast tissue can be seen, less radiation will be used and there will be no movement, which causes blurring on the x-ray.

BreastCheck uses state of the art equipment to make sure a high quality image is taken.

Why should women come for breast screening?

Regular breast screening means that if there are changes, they will be found as early as possible. Finding a breast cancer when it is small normally means:

  • There is a greater chance of treating the cancer successfully
  • It is less likely to have spread to other parts of the body
  • There may be more treatment options available

Finding cancer early is important. Breast screening and better treatments are helping to lower deaths from breast cancer. Screening programmes in other countries have greatly reduced the number of women dying from breast cancer. Northern Ireland has shown a reduction in deaths from breast cancer by 20 per cent in the last 10 years.

It is a woman's choice whether or not they have breast screening. There are many different reasons why women decide whether or not to have screening. Here is a leaflet on the benefits and limits of breast screening.

Join the many women already taking part in BreastCheck – The National Breast Screening Programme. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s free. You can watch this conversation about participating in breast screening here.

Why screen women aged over 50?

In Ireland over 70 per cent of breast cancer occurs in women over 50 years of age. Breast cancer occurs less frequently in women under 40 years. In women who have not reached the menopause, the breast tissue is usually dense and it is more difficult to see a small cancer with a mammogram. Once a woman has reached the menopause the breast tissue changes and turns into fatty tissue. This makes it much easier to see a small cancer on the breast x-ray. There is a higher chance of developing breast cancer as women get older.

BreastCheck is extending and in time the programme will be available to women aged 50 to 69. The Department of Health and Children chose this age group for screening as there is a greater proportion of women at risk of dying from the disease in this age group compared to women above or below this age range.

In the following graph the line shows the increase in age-specific mortality (per 100,000 women) from breast cancer among Irish females in 2004. As age increases so does mortality from breast cancer. The bar chart shows the age-specific death from breast cancer as a percentage of total deaths among Irish women in 2004. It can be seen that as women pass 65 years the relative contribution of breast cancer to overall female mortality drops considerably.

Mortality from Breast Cancer in Irish Women 2004