Walking you through a mammogram: what to expect from a screening appointment

Catching breast cancer early through screening can have a significant impact on treatment and survival - but what is a mammogram, and what can you expect from the appointment?

Jackie Francis, a Senior Radiographer at Great Western Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, invited us into the hospital to talk through the eligibility criteria for screening and to walk us through the entire process, including what they look out for. Here’s the advice she shared:

What is a mammogram? 

A mammogram uses X-rays to check your breast for cancers that are too small to see or feel. During the screening you will have at least 4 breast X-rays (mammograms) taken, with a minimum of 2 for each breast*. 

The main aim of a mammogram is to pick up breast cancer early because earlier detection often leads to better outcomes. 

Before your screening: preparation

  • You should expect to receive an invitation in the post if you fulfil the eligibility criteria and your mammogram is due. Generally, this is every 3 years in the UK.
  • If you are over the age of 71 you can request a screening mammogram by contacting your local breast screening provider.
  • To book your appointment you need use the contact information included within your invitation. You will then be offered the next available appointment which will be confirmed by a letter in the post.

During your screening: what should you expect?

  • Once you arrive at the breast clinic a female Radiographer or mammography practitioner will come and collect you from the waiting room. It will usually be just the two of you in the room whilst the screening takes place. 
  • They will introduce themselves and check through your personal details and medical information, and talk through any breast concerns that you may have. 
  • Your radiographer or practitioner will then explain what you can expect from the procedure.
  • For the procedure you will be asked to undress from the waist up.
  • Each breast will then be positioned, one at a time, onto the mammogram machine. A perspex plate will then press onto the breast tissue to compress and obtain an image.
  • You will be asked to hold your breath whilst the image is being taken to limit movement.
  • Your Radiographer will then obtain an x-ray (mammogram) of your breast and the compression will released. The compression should only lasts a few seconds.
  • The machine will then be re-positioned to obtain an x-ray from another angle of your breast to cover your armpit area. This will be completed for each breast separately to cover all your breast tissue.
  • Altogether your appointment will take around 10 minutes to complete.

After your screening: know the next steps

  • You should receive a letter in the post with your results. This usually take up to 2 weeks but may be longer.
  • You may be asked to return for a second screening visit for extra x-rays and further tests if a change is seen in your mammogram. There is a higher chance if this is your first mammogram. You make also be asked to return for another mammogram if there is a technical issue with any of your images.

This process is representative of a UK based procedure. If you have any additional questions around mammogram screening, please check with your local healthcare provider for more details on their screening programme.

*Information taken from the NHS.co.uk website