“Only five per cent of women who attend the Western Trust’s mobile breast screening unit, are referred back for further tests,” reveals radiographer Dorothy McFaul.
And Dorothy would know. Not only is Dorothy the superintendent radiographer for the breast screening programme, she’s been with the unit since it first opened in 1991.
As the Western Trust this month marked the 25th anniversary of the opening of the screening unit, it revealed how the number of women the service caters for has grown from 16,000 in 1991 to approximately 48,000 in 2016.
Breast cancer care is carried out by the same staff but delivered on two levels - breast screening, and symptomatic care where a woman is referred to the unit after being seen by her own GP.
“The static rooms at Altnagelvin are the triple assessment centre,” said Dorothy, who alongside Catherine Wright was part the first team to set up the screening unit in 1991.
“So if you went to your GP with a problem you would be referred here to the centre. If you were a breast screening patient and you were called back after having a routine mammogram, it would be to the triple assessment centre as well.
“And when we say triple assessment centre - it’s based on three strands of diagnosing breast cancer. Firstly a clinical examination of the breast, then a radiological examination which will be a mammogram or ultrasound and a pathological examination where a sample is taken from the breast. This can be a cell sample or a biopsy.”
She stressed that not everybody needs all three strands of testing - but it has to be available if it is needed.
“The whole team has to be drawn together when you are holding a triple assessment clinic.”
All women aged between 50 and 70 are automatically called to a screening unit every three years.
“The screening normally takes place in a mobile unit that goes out closer to the patient for routine screening,” said Dorothy. “Women are told to allow half an hour for an appointment but most people are only there for 10-15 minutes. Two x-rays are taken of each breast and the women are advised that there will be pressure placed on the breast that will only last a few seconds. The results of the mammogram are then sent directly to the woman. By three weeks you should either have had a letter telling you your mammogram is normal or a letter asking you to come back to an assessment clinic.
“Only five of about every 100 women are called back, and we expect four of those five women to get a normal result when those tests are completed.”
Dorothy stressed how important it is for women to attend their screening appointments. And she also appealed to women over 70, who are not automatically sent an appointment to make sure they make one.
“Women over 70 sometimes think that the screening is no longer available to them or they are not at risk,” she said.
“But that is not the case. It’s important to make the appointment. Breast screening is saving lives.”