It takes about the same time to boil your breakfast eggs, yet it’s one health check that could save your life.
Breast cancer screening saves around 130 lives a year in Scotland, yet it’s feared many women most at risk from the disease could be placing themselves in danger by simply failing to turn up for their appointment.
Scared of what it might involve, too embarrassed to take off their top, perhaps even too frightened to think of what might happen if the results aren’t good . . . there are plenty of excuses not to go.
Edinburgh mum Linda Anderson could have come up with any of those excuses rather than make the trip to the breast cancer screening clinic.
Instead, she didn’t think twice about going . . . and it helped save her life.
A routine mammogram picked up signs of cancer. Within weeks she was undergoing treatment.
Now, seven years later, she’s fighting fit and spearheading a Scottish Government push to encourage women not to ignore the chance to catch cancer before it catches them.
“I strongly advise all eligible women to take up the offer of breast screening,” says mum-of-two Linda, 62, who lives with husband Alex in Slateford. “I appreciate that it can sometimes be a bit uncomfortable but the process only takes a few minutes and it could save your life.”
Screening picks up around 1500 breast cancer cases a year in Scotland. In the past ten years it has led to a 19 per cent drop in deaths from the disease.
Meanwhile, digital advances in technology mean it’s quicker than ever: the South East Breast Screening Centre, based at Ardmillan Terrace, is the first in Scotland to go fully digital, which means each appointment last just seven minutes – the time to boil an egg – and patients get more accurate results, often within a week.
Linda – whose mum, Margaret, died from a form of breast cancer at the age of 59 – didn’t hesitate when she received word to go for her routine mammogram five years ago.
“I went in the January that year and received a letter a week later asking me to return for further tests,” she recalls.
“I didn’t think too much of it at the time but when I returned for another mammogram I started to worry that something might be wrong.
“I had to wait a week for the results and when I returned to the Western General Hospital the doctor confirmed my worst fear – I had breast cancer.”
The diagnosis was a blow. However, she barely had time to think before treatment had started.
“Everything moved very quickly from this point onwards,” says Linda, who is mum to Kirsty, 25, and Gary, 29. “I was admitted to the Western General Hospital on February 21 for a mastectomy on my right breast and they also removed all of my lymph nodes. This was followed by eight sessions of chemotherapy and a month of radiotherapy.
“I never asked the surgeon what stage my cancer was at when they found it but it was obviously at a stage where I could be treated – and I’m very thankful for that.”
Dr Sue Payne, consultant in public health medicine at NHS Lothian, says screening is a vital tool in detecting cancer early. “Breast screening only takes ten minutes and can pick up tiny cancers that you can’t see or feel. This could be life-saving as the earlier breast cancer is found, the easier it is to treat.
“While screening is the best way to detect breast cancer early, it’s important to be aware of any changes to your breasts between screenings. If you spot any unusual or persistent changes, don’t delay in making an appointment with your GP.”
In Scotland, women aged 50-70 years old are invited for a routine breast screening once every three years. It is the most at-risk age group: eight out of ten breast cancers are found in women aged 50 and over.
Screening involves taking two quick X-rays of each breast which can identify tiny cancers, too small to feel or see.
Because it helps spot traces of early cancer, it means treatment can begin before the disease takes hold, helping improve recovery rates.
“I still go to the Western General every year for a mammogram but I feel fit and well,” adds Linda, who works at Asda at Chesser and has raised thousands of pounds for the chain’s Tickled Pink campaign.
“This experience has helped me give something back to others.”
And her message to other women is clear: “It’s so important so please don’t ignore your appointment – just go.
“I think quite a lot of women get the letter inviting them to go for screening and just stick it in a drawer and forget about it. They might think they’re fine and that the screening won’t find anything, but sometimes you can’t see or feel anything but it’s there.
“It never crossed my mind not to go,” adds Linda, who has spoken about her experiences in a breast screening awareness video. “It didn’t take long, just a few minutes, but it can save your life.”
The Ardmillan Terrace facility serves 187,000 women across Lothian, Fife and the Borders. Its new digital technology means there are fewer instances of women being recalled for repeat images, as staff can see and assess each image as soon as its taken.
According to Dr Payne, anyone who has missed a call to attend a screening session can still organise an appointment.
“If you’re between 50 and 70 years old and have missed a screening in the last two years, don’t worry,” she adds. “It’s not too late – you can organise one today.”
For more information about the Scottish National Breast Screening Programme, visit www.getcheckedearly.org or call NHS Inform on 0800 22 44 88.
Routine check-ups offered to women aged 50-70
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Scottish women with around 4600 cases diagnosed each year and more than 1000 deaths. Breast screening helps find cancers at an early stage.
In Scotland, approximately 1500 breast cancers are picked up this way every year. It’s estimated that the programme saves around 130 lives every year in Scotland.
Routine screening is offered to all women aged between 50 to 70. They receive an offer to undergo screening once every three years.
The process involves a little squeeze of pressure, which lasts a few seconds. It is carried out by female mammographers and takes minutes. The results are usually available in three weeks.
Most mammograms are clear of cancer. Around one in 20 women will be invited to attend an appointment for further tests. Some may be called back because the mammogram was poor quality.
Screening has small risks attached – having mammograms every three years for 20 years can very slightly increase your risk of getting cancer over your lifetime. It’s also sometimes impossible to tell if the cancer is one which could cause harm in the future.