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Woman having a mammogram

Woman having a mammogram
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4-minute read

Mammography, also commonly referred to as a mammogram, is a type of x-ray of the breasts used to screen for breast cancer in women and to help diagnose breast cancer in women who have a lump in their breast.

If you are a woman aged between 50 and 74 years, it is recommended that you have a mammogram every 2 years to screen for breast cancer.

Screening mammograms are used to find breast cancers early, before they can be seen or felt. Mammograms increase the chance of early detection and successful treatment of breast cancer.

It is also important that women get to know the normal look and feel of their breasts even if they are having regular mammograms. If you notice any changes or feel something unusual, talk to your doctor.

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is a method that uses low doses of x-rays to create an image of the breast. It can find changes in the breast that are too small to be felt during physical examination.

A mammogram is used as a breast cancer screening test.

This means it is used to examine women who don’t have any reason to suspect they might have breast cancer.

It is also used as part of a diagnostic test for women who have a breast lump.

When are screening mammograms recommended?

Cancer Council Australia recommends mammograms every 2 years for all women aged between 50 and 74 - the age range during which most breast cancers occur and when the benefits of screening are clear-cut. Women aged between 50 and 74 will receive letters from BreastScreen inviting them to be screened.

Women aged 40 to 49 and those aged over 74 can also be screened free of charge, but they will not receive invitation letters.

If you are 40 years old or more and are concerned about your risk of breast cancer, for example due to your family history, your doctor may recommend a mammogram.

The benefits of screening at the younger age are unclear as the denser breast tissue affects the image, making it more difficult to detect cancer.

When are diagnostic mammograms recommended?

You might be asked to have a diagnostic mammogram if you have a lump or other sign or symptom in your breast. If you have a breast lump or another symptom and are having a mammogram, you may also have an ultrasound. You may also be asked to have a biopsy.

Risks of screening mammograms

For most women aged over 50 the benefits of regular mammograms outweigh any risks.

The risks of a mammogram are:

  • exposure to a low dose of radiation from x-rays
  • a result suggesting a possible cancer that is found to be wrong by follow-up testing (known as a false positive). False positive mammograms can be caused by scar tissue, cysts or dense breast tissue
  • a false negative result – that is, breast cancer was present but not found
  • a breast cancer is found and treated that may not have become life threatening. It is not possible to be sure which breast cancers may become life-threatening and which breast cancers may not

Risks of diagnostic mammograms

The main risk is exposure to a low dose of radiation from X-rays. This is outweighed by the benefit of getting information about a breast lump.

What does a mammogram cost?

Two-yearly mammograms are free through BreastScreen Australia for women aged 40 and over who do not have any signs or symptoms of breast disease. You may be charged for mammograms that are done to help diagnose cancer – Medicare offers a rebate on those tests.

You may be charged for screening mammograms that are done outside the BreastScreen Australia program. Medicare might or might not offer a rebate on those tests.

State and territory directories

Call BreastScreen Australia on 13 20 50 for more information or to make an appointment, or visit the BreastScreen website in your state or territory.

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Last reviewed: April 2020

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