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6-minute read

Key facts

  • A mammogram is a low-dose x-ray scan of your breasts.
  • Mammograms find breast changes that are too small to see or feel during a physical examination.
  • Mammograms can screen for breast cancer in people without symptoms, or help diagnose breast cancer in people with symptoms.
  • Cancer Council Australia recommends that females aged 50 to 74 have regular 2-yearly screening mammograms to detect early breast cancers.
  • Females aged over 40 can receive free 2-yearly screening mammograms through the BreastScreen Australia program.

What is a mammogram?

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

A mammogram is a breast cancer screening test (screening mammogram). This means it is used to examine people who don’t have any reason to suspect they might have breast cancer.

It is also an important part of a diagnostic test for people who have a breast lump (diagnostic mammogram).

What happens during my mammogram?

During a mammogram, you will be asked to undress from the waist up.

The radiographer (x-ray technician) will place your breasts one at a time between 2 plates on an x-ray machine. The machine will press firmly on your breasts to take the x-ray picture. This takes about 10 seconds per breast. Two x-rays are usually taken of each breast. It can be uncomfortable, but only for a very short time.

The whole appointment usually takes about 20 minutes. You usually receive your results by mail within 2 weeks.

All BreastScreen Australia radiographers are female.

Why do I need a screening mammogram?

Around 1 in 7 Australian females develop breast cancer in their lifetime. 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 still important to be familiar with how your breasts usually look and feel, even if you are having regular mammograms. If you notice any changes or feel something unusual, talk to your doctor.

What are the risks of screening mammograms?

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

The risks of a mammogram include the following:

  • Exposure to a low dose of radiation from x-rays.
  • A false positive result — a result suggesting a possible cancer, that is found to be wrong by follow-up testing. False positive mammograms can be a result of scar tissue, cysts or dense breast tissue.
  • A false negative result — this means that breast cancer is present but was not found on the mammogram.
  • Over diagnosis leading to unnecessary treatment — a breast cancer is found and treated that may not have become life-threatening. It can be hard to know which breast cancers may become life-threatening and which breast cancers may not.

When should I have a screening mammogram?

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

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

If you are 40 years of age or older and have a higher risk of breast cancer, your doctor may recommend that you start having screening mammograms. Having a family history, for example, can increase your risk of breast cancer.

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

When will I need a diagnostic mammogram?

Your doctor might refer you for a diagnostic mammogram if you have a lump or other changes in your breast. If you have a breast lump or another symptom and are having a mammogram, you may also have an ultrasound. Your doctor may also recommend a biopsy.

What are the risks of diagnostic mammograms?

The main risk is exposure to a low dose of radiation from x-rays. The benefit of getting information about a breast lump is bigger than this risk.

Will I need to pay for a mammogram?

Two-yearly screening mammograms are free through BreastScreen Australia for females aged 40 and over, who do not have any signs or symptoms of breast disease.

You may need to pay for screening mammograms that are done outside the BreastScreen Australia program. Medicare might offer a rebate on those tests depending on your situation.

If your doctor refers you for a diagnostic mammogram, you may need to pay. However, you will usually also receive a Medicare rebate.

Where can I make an appointment and get more information?

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: August 2022

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