Everything you wanted to know about mammograms

Mammograms are recommended every two years for women aged over 50 – but that’s not all you need to know about breast screening.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women in Australia and the second largest cause of cancer-related death, so it’s not surprising that a screening mammogram is among the key health checks recommended past the age of 50.

Breast cancer treatment is most effective when cancers are small and the X-ray pictures a mammogram takes can detect the presence of breast cancers before they can be felt.

As a result, women who are screened by the BreastScreen Australia program have a 41-52 per cent reduced risk of dying from breast cancer.

When should you get a mammogram?

BreastScreen invites women aged 50-74 to have a free two-yearly screening mammogram.

Women aged 40-49 and over 75 can also book a free screening mammogram.

Ask your GP whether screening is right for you, if you fall within these age groups.

If you have breast symptoms, you may also need a diagnostic mammogram.

What if you have a family history of breast cancer?

If you have a strong family history of breast cancer, talk to your GP about whether you should begin having screening mammograms at an earlier age.

While eight out of nine women who develop breast cancer don’t have a close relative affected by the disease, having a family history of breast cancer is a risk factor.

Interestingly, there’s currently a push to screen people based on their individual risk of breast cancer rather than the one-size-fits all approach that’s used now.

“We want to see the Federal Government lead implementation of risk-stratified breast screening in Australia,” Vicki Durston, Breast Cancer Network Australia’s director of policy, advocacy and support services, says.

As well as a family history of cancer, risk stratification could also take into account things like breast density and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status to ensure people are screened at a frequency and with a method that’s appropriate to their risk of cancer.

“There are many disparities in screening across Australia,” Vicki says.

“We know only some states and territories tell women if they have dense breasts.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander screening rates are also considerably lower than for non-indigenous Australians, which leads to much poorer breast cancer survival rates for these groups.”

How much is a mammogram?

Two-yearly screening mammograms are free for women aged 40 and over.

However, if you’ve been referred by your doctor for a diagnostic mammogram, you may have to pay a fee.

Do you need a referral for a screening mammogram?

No – women who are eligible to participate in BreastScreen don’t need a doctor’s referral to make an appointment.

How can you book a screening mammogram?

Contact the BreastScreen provider in your state or territory by calling 13 20 50.

Most BreastScreen providers also allow you to book an appointment online.

How long does a mammogram take?

The actual mammogram, or breast X-ray, usually only takes a few minutes but the whole appointment takes about 20 minutes.

Do mammograms hurt?

It’s not unusual to feel some discomfort while the X-ray pictures are being taken, but this should only last for a few seconds.

Why does it take two weeks to receive mammogram results?

At least two health professionals review every screening mammogram, which is why it takes time to receive results in the mail.

Recent research shows using artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse mammogram scans could almost halve this workload, and would also detect a larger percentage of cancers.

But a local study suggests that while Australian women would support the future use of AI in breast screening, retaining a human element would be vital.

“Women often, understandably, worried that the whole screening process might be automated,” says study co-lead, Professor Stacy Carter from the University of Wollongong.

“It will be important for screening services to emphasise that breast screening images will still be taken by a human radiographer,” Prof Carter says.

She says the fact that Australia’s breast screening systems are centralised and have strong quality assurance frameworks is a positive.

“This offers great opportunities to rigorously evaluate AI before implementation, and communicate well with women before deployment, to ensure that AI offers benefits and does not contribute any additional harms or inequities.”

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Written by Karen Fittall.