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Breast Cancer Screening

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A national breast screening programme has been running throughout the UK since 1989 to try to improve the early detection of breast cancers. A study in America several years ago found that 95 per cent of women whose breast lumps were detected and treated when measuring 0.5 cm (approximately 1/5 of an inch) or less in diameter were alive and disease-free 20 years later.

Approximately 30 per cent of women whose tumours were not discovered until they measured 2 to 3 cm (about 3/4 to 1 inch) in diameter did not survive past 5 years. Although this does not necessarily mean that women with small breast cancers which are left untreated cannot live for many years, it may indicate an important role for the early detection and accurate diagnosis of small lumps.

Further studies have produced less clear-cut figures. In a Swedish trial, a 30 per cent reduction in the rate of mortality from breast cancer was found for women following regular mammography.

Women in the UK between the ages of 50 and 65 are now invited to be screened by mammography every 3 years, and 80 per cent of them have taken up this offer. The incidence of breast cancer increases with age, and women in this age group are most likely to benefit from this method of screening. After the age of 65, automatic regular screening stops, although you may, if you wish, continue to be screened, and your local screening centre, GP or Community Health Council can advise you about how to arrange this.

About 1 per cent of screened women are referred for surgery -usually to a specialist breast surgeon.

Invitation to attend

Sometime after her fiftieth birthday, a woman should receive a letter asking her to attend a breast screening clinic. Most clinics deal with all the patients on the list of one GP in their area at a time, working their way around all the GP practices in what is likely to be a programme involving many thousands of women.

Because of the numbers involved, some women are not contacted until they are almost 53 years old. However, if you have any particular cause for concern, or think you may have been accidentally omitted from a screening programme, do contact your doctor for advice.

You may be asked to attend a special breast screening clinic or the mammography department of a hospital. Some clinics also have mobile units which remain in a particular area for a few months. These are convenient for women who do not live close to a clinic or hospital.

You will be sent a letter, and probably an explanatory leaflet, with the date and time of your appointment.

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