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A note on terms:

Everyone has breast tissue and people of all genders can get breast cancer. To be clear and consistent, we use the word ‘breasts’ in our health information, rather than boobs, pecs or chest. When we say breasts, we mean the tissue from your rib cage up to your collarbone and armpits, including your nipples.

Who is invited for breast screening?

In the UK, women aged 50 – 70 are invited to have breast screening every 3 years as part of a national screening programme. It is rare for men to have breast cancer, so they are not invited to be screened.

Breast screening uses x-rays or sound waves to take pictures inside your breast and look for breast cancer. Breast cancer screening could be by one of 2 scans:

  • Mammogram
  • Ultrasound

Why don’t we screen women under 50?

In most cases, the risks of screening women under 50 would outweigh the benefits. Women with a high risk of breast cancer can be screened at any age. However, low-risk women under 50 are not invited to be screened as part of the national screening programme. X-ray exposes you to a tiny amount of radiation, and any exposure to radiation can very slightly increase your risk of cancer. Mammograms of young women are also more difficult to read, as their breast tissue is denser. Women under 50 would need more frequent scans, so they would have more exposure to radiation.

It is important to get to know your breasts and chest area whether you are screened or not. Make sure you know what is normal for you and your body. If you notice any unusual changes, make an appointment to see your GP, even if you have a scan appointment coming up.

Mammogram Screening

A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. When you go for a mammogram, a female staff member (mammographer) will be in the room with you. The mammographer will tell you to undress to the waist and stand in front of the mammogram machine. She will help to position you so she can take the best picture of your breast. Both breasts will be x-rayed, one after the other. Some people find mammograms slightly uncomfortable, but it is over very quickly. You can still have a mammogram if you have breast implants. Just let your mammographer know before your scan.

Breast Ultrasound

Younger people with symptoms of breast cancer may have an ultrasound scan. 

Ultrasound is painless. It is a good scan for looking at young breast tissue. That’s because young breast tissue is denser than breast tissue in older people.

For the ultrasound, you will be asked to undress to the waist and sit or lie down on a couch. The specialist will put some clear gel on your breast and armpit, and then move the handheld scanner all over that area. Ultrasound is safe for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding you can still be referred to the breast clinic for tests if you need to be.

Younger, high risk people without symptoms may be referred for regular MRI breast screening scans. MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging. It’s a type of scan that uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to take detailed pictures of the inside of the body.


Our health information carries the PIF TICK quality mark, so you can be assured it is reliable and trustworthy.

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This information was published in April 2021. It will be revised in April 2024.

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