Find it before you feel it

Mammograms are very low dose breast tissue x-rays which can detect tiny breast changes well before anything can be seen or felt, like a lump. The earlier breast cancer’s detected, the more treatable it is. In fact, the ten year survival rate for women with mammogram-detected breast cancer is very good.

Screening mammograms can’t prevent breast cancer, but they can reduce the risk of dying from the disease by approximately a third.

When to start

The risk of breast cancer increases as you get older so The Breast Cancer Foundation New Zealand encourages women to consider starting regular mammograms from the age of 40 (in younger women under 40, the breast tissue is usually too dense for changes to be clearly seen on a mammogram).

The Foundation recommends women consider a screening mammogram as follows:

  • Every year for women aged between 40 and 49 years
  • Every two years for women from the age of 50 – 73 years
  • After 70, in discussion with your doctor

Aging is one of the biggest risk factors for breast cancer as 70% of all cancers occur in women aged over 50.

How to get one

From 40 to 44 years, you’ll need to pay for a mammogram (unless referred by your doctor)

Mammograms are available throughout NZ at private breast clinics and radiology clinics. The cost of a mammogram is approximately $200. You can just book a mammogram directly with the clinic – you don’t need a medical referral.

Some private health insurance companies will reimburse the cost of a private screening or diagnostic mammogram.

From 45 to 69 years, mammograms are free.

BreastScreen Aotearoa provide free breast screening mammograms to women with no symptoms between 45 and 69 years of age every two years. To enrol phone 0800 270 200 or visit the National Screening Unit website.

Over 70? If you're in good health, keep having regular mammograms when the free screening ends.

You’re more at risk of breast cancer now than in your 50's.

What happens during a mammogram?

Your breast is briefly pressed between two plates of the x-ray machine. This is to spread the tissue apart and get a good image of the breast. Some women may find this uncomfortable or painful, but it is only for a short time. Let the radiographer (the person doing your mammogram) know if it is too uncomfortable. Afterwards, the images of your breast are checked by a radiologist (specialist doctor) and you’ll be advised of the result.

Don't schedule a mammogram the week before your period is due as your breasts may be a little tender then. If anxious, take a friend and get your mammogram together.

Communicate with the health professional during your mammogram if you need reassurance or have questions. The whole procedure should be over in less than 15 minutes.

Are mammograms safe?

The benefit of a screening mammogram (early detection and treatment of breast cancer) far outweighs any risk to a woman from the very small amount of radiation exposure received from a screening mammogram. The amount of radiation exposure is considered to be a similar dose to what women would naturally be exposed to, in the environment, over a 7 week timeframe1.

Screening mammograms are not perfect; they do have their limitations, however they’re the best method currently available to detect breast cancer early.

What else should I do? Check for changes.

Get to know how your breasts normally look and feel. Women need to start checking their breasts from their twenties as young women can get breast cancer too (Although their risk is much lower).]

Be aware that breast cancer can occur between mammograms so check your breasts often and show any breast changes to your doctor.

Checking is as easy as Touch. Look. Check.

Touch – your breasts in the shower. You’re feeling for any lumps or thickening of the skin even up into your armpits?

Look – stand undressed in front of a mirror. Can you see any physical changes to the breast shape, skin or nipples?

Check – any breast changes with your doctor. Pronto!

For breast health advice, call The Breast Cancer Foundation New Zealand on 0800BCNurse (0800 2268 773) or visit the NZBCF website here.