Opinion

Learn to ‘screen’ yourself between appointments

Checking for signs of breast cancer does not start and finish with a mammogram. Jackie Harris says it is a continuous process
Breast screening

Breast cancer risk increases with age eight out of ten breast cancers are diagnosed in women aged 50 and over. So it is important for women in this age group to be informed about the disease.

I often take calls on the Breast Cancer Care helpline from women with questions about screening. It might be a woman over 70 who is surprised she has not had her usual invitation, or one in her 50s who had a clear mammogram just a few months ago but has found a lump and wants to know if it could be cancer.

Womens views

We wanted to know more about womens feelings towards, and understanding of, the NHS screening programme, so we surveyed more than 1,000 over the age of 50, with interesting results.

There can be barriers to attending screening appointments for women some may be confused about

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Breast cancer risk increases with age – eight out of ten breast cancers are diagnosed in women aged 50 and over. So it is important for women in this age group to be informed about the disease. 

I often take calls on the Breast Cancer Care helpline from women with questions about screening. It might be a woman over 70 who is surprised she has not had her usual invitation, or one in her 50s who had a clear mammogram just a few months ago but has found a lump and wants to know if it could be cancer.

Women’s views 

We wanted to know more about women’s feelings towards, and understanding of, the NHS screening programme, so we surveyed more than 1,000 over the age of 50, with interesting results.

There can be barriers to attending screening appointments for women – some may be confused about the benefits and risks, others struggle to travel or are scared of what a screening might pick up. 

But most of the women we surveyed were having regular mammograms. Some 76% of those aged 50-70 said they attend every time they receive an invitation, and 8% attend sometimes. 

Screening saves lives

The 2012 Breast Screening Review (Cancer Research UK 2015) found that screening can save lives, so it is good news that so many women are choosing to attend. However, understanding of some aspects of the screening programme is low. For example, one in seven women who attend screening are not checking their breasts outside these appointments. Breast cancer can develop between mammograms – in fact we know most cancers are found by women themselves. So it is still important for women to be familiar with their breasts. 

Worryingly, we also found that just over half (51%) of the women we surveyed did not know they could continue to request regular mammograms after receiving their final screening invitation by the time they are 70, despite two thirds (65%) saying they would like to do so. 

Mislaid letters 

Women receive useful information about screening with their invitation and at their appointment, but it is understandable that it does not always sink in. They may mislay letters, or forget to make an appointment in three years’ time after receiving their final invitation.

We must take every opportunity to reach out to these women and remind them to be breast aware. Early detection of breast cancer can lead to more effective treatment and, ultimately, save lives. 

Nurses and other healthcare professionals working in breast screening units should make sure they remind women to check between appointments and discuss the process for making appointments after the age of 70. 

We can work together to ensure women have the care, support and information they need about screening, so they are empowered to make informed decisions about their breast health.

Jackie Harris is clinical nurse specialist, Breast Cancer Care

For more information:

To speak to someone about breast awareness publications, call 0808 800 6000,
or to download them visit www.breastcancercare.org.uk

Cancer Research UK (2015) The 2012 Breast Screening Review

 

 

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