October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, making it the perfect time to learn more about breast cancer, its diagnosis and treatment. Today, we want to take a look at breast cancer screenings in the hopes that the information will make them less daunting to those who need them.
Carried out at mobile breast screening units and special clinics, breast screening involves having a mammogram, which is an x-ray of the breasts. A mammographer – a female health practitioner – will carry this out. The goal of this procedure is to identify cancer early on, which will increase the likelihood of successful treatment. It is mostly needed by women aged between 50 and 70, but some other groups – such as some trans or non-binary people – may also need a screening.
It generally takes about 2 weeks to get the results of a breast cancer screening. Your results letter will also give you an idea of the next steps you need to take. The screening process has both risks and benefits.
How Common Is Breast Cancer?
In people who are assigned female at birth, breast cancer is the most common invasive cancer. When it’s time to attend your breast cancer screening, you should receive an invitation letter with information on where to go and when. The letter will also include contact details for your unit, which you should use to call the unit if…
- you have breast implants. You’ll usually be able to have a mammogram, but let the screening staff know beforehand. X-rays can’t ‘see’ through an implant to the breast tissue behind it, and this can make the mammogram less effective.
- you are breastfeeding, pregnant or have had a mammogram recently. Your screening may need to be delayed.
- you find climbing steps difficult or have a physical disability. Your screening unit may need to make arrangements in advance to make your appointment more accessible.
On the Day of the Screening
The staff will ask you about any breast problems you have had when you arrive at the breast screening unit, and will go over your details. Any questions you may have can also be asked at this point.
|Without the necessary information, many have been left wondering if they should postpone their screenings and treatments, or if it’s safest to carry on with these appointments. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of preventable deaths from breast cancer could occur over the next few years.
Coronavirus is more likely to result in serious complications if you have lung problems or a weakened immune system, and both of these issues can occur as a result of certain breast cancer treatments including chemotherapy, targeted therapies and immunotherapies. If you’ve received these treatments in the past, you may also be at a higher risk of complications, but this is not yet known. Similarly, the impact that different types of cancer could have on Covid-19 outcomes is not yet known.
Lung problems can be further worsened by breast cancer if it has metastasized (spread) to the lungs, and developing COVID-19 can be particularly dangerous in this situation. Within a few months of finishing targeted therapy or chemotherapy, the immune system will typically recover and once again lower your risk somewhat.
In the UK, breast cancer screenings are currently going ahead. There are delays, however, as a result of COVID-19. Your screening or follow-up appointment may take longer than normal to organise. In order to keep you safe, changes may also be made to the screening procedure at your appointment. Strict guidance on infection control will have to be followed to keep you and the staff safe. For example, it is unlikely that you will be able to bring anyone else into your appointment for now.
It’s generally best to wear a skirt or trousers rather than a dress, as the mammogram will require that you undress to the waist.
Your mammographer will explain the process before taking any action. Your breast will then be placed onto the mammogram machine and flattened firmly but gently with a plastic plate. This ensures a clear X-ray by helping to keep your breast still. Two X-rays of each breast – one from above and one from the side – are normally taken. While these are taken, the mammographer will go behind a screen.
Each time an X-ray is taken, you will need to keep still for several seconds.
The procedure can occasionally be painful, and most women will find it uncomfortable. In order to take a clear mammogram, however, the compression is necessary. The quick nature of the procedure means that the discomfort never lasts too long. It’s worth asking at your appointment how long the results should take and who to contact if you don’t hear in that time, as it can be slower than normal right now.
The mammogram will take just a few minutes and the appointment as a whole takes less than half an hour.
Keep in mind that breast cancer screenings are intended for healthy people who have not noticed any symptoms. Screenings aim to find early breast cancers, but cannot prevent you from getting breast cancer. The purpose of a screening is to detect breast cancer before it is large enough to be seen or felt. The larger a cancer gets, the more difficult it becomes to treat.
Rather than waiting for a screening invitation, you must talk to your doctor straight away if you notice any unusual changes to your body that don’t go away. It’s best to get it checked out, even though most cases will not turn out to be cancer.
The mammogram will be checked for any abnormalities, and this will give you your results. It normally takes about 2 weeks for the results to get back to you and your GP, but it may take a little longer. For every 1,000 people who get a breast cancer screening, only around nine will have cancer.
To learn more about breast cancer this month check out our book, The Essential Guide to Breast Cancer.