Find out about mammograms and what breast screening is all about. This article also explains who should be having mammograms in New Zealand today.
What is a mammogram?
A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. Each breast is placed in turn between 2 X-ray plates and an X-ray is then taken.
Mammograms – or breast screening – does not prevent you from getting breast cancer. By detecting breast cancer early, however, it does reduce your chance of dying from breast cancer.
What is Breastscreen Aotearoa?
In New Zealand there is a free breast screening service available for women between 45-69 years of age. This has been identified as the period of highest risk of breast cancer in women and the most effective time to screen for early breast cancer, in terms of making a difference to women’s health.
Women under 45 do not usually benefit from regular mammograms, as the detection rate is poor and the risk of breast cancer is low.
If you fall into one of the following categories, however, you will be entitled to free mammograms, which will be arranged through you doctor:
- previous history of breast cancer, or an at risk lesion;
- your mother or sister had breast cancer before the menopause, or cancer in both breasts.
What is the cost of a mammogram?
There is no cost to having a mammogram if you meet the criteria of Breastscreen Aotearoa:
- Women age 45-69
- No symptoms of breast cancer
- Have not had a mammogram in the previous 12 months
- Eligible for free public health in New Zealand
- Not pregnant
Where can I have a mammogram done?
Mammograms are available at the major health centres around NZ and in addition are available from mobile screening units around the country.
Who will do my mammogram?
Mammograms are usually done by radiographers, who are specially trained technicians, who carry out X-rays. The mammogram will be interpreted by a radiologist, who is a doctor specialising in radiology. Usually a mammogram is checked by 2 radiologists.
What will a mammogram feel like?
Women often find having a mammogram uncomfortable, but it does not last long and it does not do any damage to the breast tissue.
What are the implications of an abnormal result?
The majority of women will have a normal result and will be advised to return for a mammogram in 2 years.
Some women are called back for further tests, such as repeat mammograms, an ultrasound scan of the breast tissue, or a biopsy, where a small amount of breast tissue is sent for analysis of the cells. In most cases these will be normal.
Some women will be found to have breast cancer and will advised to have surgery, radiation treatment, chemotherapy or hormone drug therapy– or a combination of these therapies.
Early detection of breast cancer will increase the chance that you will be able to have surgery, but avoid losing your breast and will reduce the chance of dying from breast cancer.
What are the signs of breast cancer?
- A new lump or thickening of the breast tissue
- Pain or tenderness of the breast
- An unusual discharge from the nipple or a change to the nipple shape, such as inverted nipples
- Changes to the skin of the breast, such as dimpling.
Although these are signs of breast cancer, in many cases they will not be due to breast cancer. If you do not get it checked out though, you will not know for sure.
If you experience one of these changes prior to 45 years or between regular mammograms, contact your family doctor in the first instance.
What risks are involved in having a mammogram?
The risk is minimal as only a very small amount of radiation is used to perform a mammogram. Also, it is recommended to wait 2 years between mammograms if you have no problems in the meantime, so the radiation is infrequent.
Sometimes the report may suggest a problem with the breast tissue when in fact everything is normal – this is called a ‘false positive’ and can cause unnecessary stress.
There is a risk that a mammogram will not detect breast cancer, even if your mammogram is interpreted by an experienced radiologist. For women under 50, breast screening is less effective as the breast tissue is denser and therefore it is more difficult to pick up early breast cancer by X-ray. However, by having a mammogram every 2 years the risk of dying of breast cancer in this age group is reduced by 20%, which is a significant amount.
By comparison, the risk of dying of breast cancer in the 65-69 age group is reduced by 45% by having regular mammograms.
It is also possible that a fast growing cancer could develop between 2 yearly mammograms.
Mammograms will pick up changes in the breast before you can see a difference or feel a difference in your breast.
To know more about cervical screening in New Zealand, visit our article on Cervical Smear.
To understand more about the Menopause, visit our Kiwi Families article.