What is a screening mammogram?
Screening is the process of looking for disease in a population of healthy people who have no symptoms of disease. A mammogram is an X-ray picture that enables doctors to see inside the breast. A screening mammogram is a breast X-ray of women with no symptoms of breast cancer.
What is digital mammography?
Breast X-rays taken using digital mammography record the images as digital files directly on to a computer. The difference is similar to the difference between a camera that uses film and a digital camera. The digital image can be displayed on a high-resolution computer screen and digitally enhanced for optimum viewing.
Is having a mammogram safe? What about the radiation?
Mammograms are safe as there is minimal exposure to radiation during a mammogram. Modern mammography machines use the smallest amount of radiation possible while still achieving a high quality image of your breast. In addition, the machine is tested annually and the radiation dose is minimised by firmly compressing the breast for a few seconds.
The American Cancer Society notes the amount of radiation received during a screening mammogram is about the same as the exposure to background radiation in the person's natural surrounding in an average three month period.
For most women, the benefits of having regular screening mammograms outweigh any possible risk from radiation exposure.
Why are screening mammograms recommended every two years?
A screening mammogram can detect breast cancer at an early stage. Generally, the earlier breast cancer is detected the greater the treatment options available to a woman. Regular screening increases the likelihood that breast cancers are found as early as possible. A two-year screening interval is recommended as there is evidence that screening intervals of longer than two years will reduce the mortality benefit from screening.
It is a woman's choice to have a screening mammogram; however routine screening is important so that if breast cancer has developed since a previous screen, it will still be detected early.
It is also important for women to remain breast aware between two yearly screens and to report unusual changes to their doctor.
How reliable is a screening mammogram?
While a screening mammogram is the only proven method of detecting breast cancer early, like other screening tests it is not 100% perfect.
Not all cancers will be detected through screening. Some cancers cannot be seen on a screening mammogram and some cancers develop during the time between screening mammograms.
A screening mammogram may also detect abnormalities in the breast tissue which may require further tests but which do not turn out to be cancer. These incidents are known as 'false positives', and are an unavoidable aspect of the screening process.
The choice to be screened is an individual one. The current medical recommendation is that all women aged between 50 and 69 years should have a screening mammogram every two years.
Who can attend breastscreenNT?
Why does breastscreenNT target asymptomatic women aged 50 to 69 years?
breastscreenNT encourages women without any breast symptoms aged 50 to 69 years to participate in the program. Research shows that screening mammograms are most effective for women in this age group. However, all women over 40 years are eligible for free screening mammograms.
Do I need a referral from my doctor to attend breastscreenNT?
A doctor's referral is not required to make an appointment at breastscreenNT. An appointment can be made by calling 13 20 50. However women are encouraged to contact their doctor if they have any concerns or if they notice any changes in their breasts.
If I am aged 40 to 49 years, can I attend breastscreenNT?
Women aged 40 to 49 years may attend, however the Breast Screen Australia policy about screening women of this age group states that:
Mammography screening through BreastScreen Australia is available to women aged 40 to 49 years who have decided, based on current knowledge and personal choice that they wish to attend. However there is clear evidence that screening has the greatest population benefit for women aged 50 to 69 years to prevent deaths from breast cancer.
Can women aged 70 years and over make an appointment?
Yes. Women aged 70 years and older are eligible and welcome to attend breastscreenNT. We advise women in this age group to discuss the requirement for ongoing screening mammograms with their GP so they make an informed decision. One reason being that they may have competing health priorities.
What if I have breast implants?
Women over 40 with breast implants are eligible to have a breastscreen at breastscreenNT. Before you have your breastscreen you will be asked to sign an additional consent form. You should note that breast implants will obscure some of the breast tissue, making it more difficult to detect small breast cancers.
breastscreenNT radiographers are specially trained to take a high quality breastscreen when breast implants are present. Breast cancer screening is generally safe for women with implants. There is a very slight chance of damage to the implant, but this is rare.
What if I am breastfeeding or pregnant?
If you are pregnant:
While a routine screening mammogram does not affect the unborn child, breastscreenNT advises women to wait until after their pregnancy before undergoing a screening mammogram. This is because the breast tissue is denser during pregnancy, which significantly reduces the sensitivity of mammography. Breasts may be extremely dense from early in the pregnancy. On a breast screen, dense breast tissue shows up as a solid white area, making small cancers (which also show up white) almost impossible to see
If you are breast feeding:
The current breastscreenNT policy is that women are advised not to have a breast screening mammogram until they have ceased breast feeding for six months. Breast cancer screening on lactating breasts is less effective because the breasts are much denser with stored milk. Similarly to when pregnant, dense breast tissue shows up on an X-ray as a solid white area, making small cancers (which also show up as white) almost impossible to see.
What is the different between a screening mammogram (breastscreen) and a diagnostic mammogram?
A screening mammogram refers to a breastscreen (an X-ray of the breast) that can detect small changes in breast tissue before they can be felt by a woman or her doctor.
A breastscreen is for women who do not have any signs or symptoms of breast cancer. It is usually done every two years. breastscreenNT provides screening mammograms as the service is only for women who have no breast symptoms.
A diagnostic mammogram is a mammogram that women have if they notice a change in their breast such as a lump. A diagnostic mammogram is usually performed in a general diagnostic imaging practice. A referral to have a diagnostic mammogram is needed from a general practitioner or surgeon and will usually include other imaging such as an ultrasound and a biopsy.
What should women with a family history of breast cancer do?
breastscreenNT recommends that women with a significant family history of breast cancer discuss their circumstances with their General Practitioner.
Please see our Resources page for more information about breast screening for women with a family history.
What if I am taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT)?
Women on combined hormone replacement therapy (HRT) are at an increased risk of breast cancer. Breast cancers detected in women taking combined HRT are also more advanced than those in women not taking HRT. Also, women taking HRT are more likely than non-users to have dense breasts. Breastscreens are slightly less reliable in women who have dense breasts.
Women on combined HRT should have a breastscreen every two years unless otherwise advised. There is currently no evidence that having a breastscreen every 12 months improved the ability to detect breast cancer in women taking combined HRT.
What if I've noticed a sign or symptom?
The breastscreenNT program is for women without signs or symptoms of breast cancer. Women who report a breast sign or symptom at the time of booking an appointment are encouraged to discuss having a diagnostic mammogram with their doctor.
What should I do between my two yearly breastscreens?
Breast cancer can develop in between your two yearly breastscreens. It is important for women to be aware of the normal look and feel of their breasts. If a woman finds a breast lump, nipple discharge or any other concerning breast changes, she should contact her doctor without delay. Women are encouraged to check their breasts regularly and if they are over 50, to also have a breastscreen every two years.
What can women less than 40 years old do to be breast aware?
breastscreenNT encourages all women to be aware of the normal look and feel of their breasts. Getting to know what is normal will help a woman recognise new or unusual breast changes. If a woman notices any new or unusual changes in her breast, she should see her doctor as soon as possible.
Regular screening mammograms are not recommended for women under 40 years of age. The tissue of young women's breasts tends to be denser than that of older women. This is due to the influence of hormones. On a mammogram, dense breast tissue shows up as a white area. Breast cancers also appear white and are therefore more difficult to find on younger women's mammograms.
Mammograms are usually more accurate as women get older, as the breast tissue becomes less dense and breast cancers are easier to see against a darker background.
- More information about Breast Screening.
- More information about Breast Cancer is available on the Cancer Australia website.