Breast cancer screening is something every woman needs to consider.
Australian women can access a free national breast cancer-screening program called BreastScreen Australia. Women aged 50 – 74 are invited to have a free mammogram every 2 years. Women aged 40 – 49 and over 74 can also be screened free of charge, but aren’t sent invitation letters. If you’re outside of the 50 – 74 age group but you want to have a mammogram, talk to your GP about whether breast cancer screening is suitable for you.
Why have a screening mammogram?
More than 75% of breast cancers occur in women aged over 50. Ninety per cent of them have no family history of breast cancer. For every 100 women who have a screening mammogram, one will be diagnosed with breast cancer.
Breast screening is a proven way to detect breast cancer early, before you can detect it yourself. Regular breast cancer screening increases the likelihood of detecting breast cancer early and therefore more effective treatment. It also improves your chances of successfully treating it.
Mammograms are not normally recommended for women aged under 40 because the denser composition of their breasts makes it difficult to see cancer on an x-ray.
Of course, breast cancer can still occur between screening mammograms, so it’s important to regularly examine your breasts and see your GP at once if you notice any changes.
During a mammogram, each of your breasts is sandwiched between 2 clear plates and then x-rayed. It can be embarrassing and uncomfortable (even slightly painful) but it’s over quickly. The radiographers who do mammograms are skilled in putting women at ease.
You’ll receive a report on the results of your free mammogram after about 1 week. If the radiologists see any suspicious areas on your mammogram, you’ll be called back for more tests which may include a breast examination, a second mammogram and/or an ultrasound to take a closer look.
If you have breast implants, be sure to let the radiographer know, as it affects the way the mammogram is done.
To make an appointment for a mammogram with BreastScreen Australia, phone 13 20 50.
Breast screening at a private centre
If you prefer, your GP can refer you for a breast screening mammogram at a private imaging centre but there won’t be a Medicare rebate. Some private clinics can give you a result from your mammogram immediately, and if you need a follow-up ultrasound, that can also be done right away. This can save you from the anxiety of waiting for the results.
Screening after breast cancer
If you’ve had breast cancer in the past and you still have one or both breasts, talk to your doctor about your need for screening mammograms, in addition to your regular appointments with your surgeon and/or oncologist. BreastScreen Australia recommends that you resume having screening mammograms 5 years after your diagnosis.
3D mammograms for assessment of breast cancer
Some private imaging centres now offer a new type of mammogram which makes a 3-dimensional image of your breast. It shows your breast tissue in thin layers that can be used to create images that are easier for radiologists to read. This can also reduce the need for you to be called back for a second look. A 3D mammogram uses more x-ray radiation compared to a normal mammogram.
BreastScreen Australia currently recommends 3D mammograms only for assessment of breast cancer, not for screening.
The pros and cons of breast cancer screening
It’s important to be aware of the benefits and risks of mammograms.
False positive results. Women who have a mammogram every 2 years have a 33% chance of getting a false positive result over a 10-year period. Having previous mammograms available for comparison can reduce this risk. A false positive result can be very distressing for you and your family. It means you’ll then need more tests to exclude cancer.
False negative results can also occur. Screening mammograms miss around 1 in 5 breast cancers. Women with dense breasts (often younger women) are more likely to have a false negative or false positive result.
Over-diagnosis and treatment. Some small breast cancers are very slow growing and never spread. Without a mammogram they’d never be detected. But once detected, doctors recommend treatment because there’s no test to tell if the cancer is life threatening or not. This means some women have treatment they don’t need.
Cancer risks associated with the x-ray radiation. There’s a risk that a mammogram could cause cancer, but it’s very low. If you have breast implants, more x-rays are needed, which increases the risk.
It’s important to discuss your decision about whether to have screening mammograms with your doctor, especially if you’ve had breast cancer.