Frequently asked questions

Why do women aged 50 to 74 need to have a breast screen every two years?

Because one mammogram is not enough to last a lifetime. To benefit from screening, women need to have a screening mammogram every two years, so that the signs of a developing breast cancer can be detected at an early stage. With early detection, there is a greater chance of successful treatment.

Why can’t women under 40 have a breast screen?

Women under 40 are not eligible to attend for screening at BreastScreen SA, as there is no evidence that having routine, regular screening mammograms in this age group reduces the number of deaths from breast cancer. You can read more about why at Who is eligible for a breast screen.

Why do you need to compress the breast during a screening mammogram?

Each breast is firmly pressed for about 10 to 15 seconds in a machine specially designed for this purpose. This is necessary to:

  • obtain the best possible picture of the breast tissue
  • hold the breast firmly to keep it still, reducing movement and blur
  • spread the breast, separating the tissues so that the doctor can see small details on your breast screen
  • press the breast to an even thickness, reducing the amount of radiation used to get the same high-quality images.

Radiation from mammography

Some women may be concerned about radiation from having a screening mammogram, but did you know:

  • the level of radiation you receive is low, similar to that from many X-rays people commonly have
  • the radiation dose is minimised by firmly pressing the breast for a few seconds
  • the benefits of having regular screening mammograms outweigh any possible risk from radiation exposure.

Is a screening mammogram different to a diagnostic mammogram?

When a woman has a diagnostic mammogram, the specialist is present and can produce X-rays focused on the area of concern, or the symptom she is experiencing. She also receives a detailed report describing any benign (non-cancerous) and/or malignant (cancerous) changes that may be present.

If you have a diagnostic mammogram outside of BSSA, a doctor's referral is required and may be performed in a public hospital or private radiology practice. It may incur a cost however a Medicare rebate is available.

Why does BreastScreen SA use mammograms to find breast cancer?

BreastScreen SA uses mammography (X-ray images of the breast) because it is the most effective screening test to detect breast cancer. No other technology has been proven as a screening test to reduce deaths from breast cancer. Consult your doctor for advice and further information.

  • use of thermography
  • use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • computerised breast imaging (see position statements)

Can I have my screening mammogram done privately (outside of BreastScreen SA)?

Screening mammograms can be provided through private practice but unlike diagnostic mammograms they are not covered by Medicare and will incur a fee.

Breast screening is provided free-of-charge from the Australian Commonwealth Government through BreastScreen Australia for all Australian women aged over 40.

The BreastScreen Australia service model is centred on the World Health Organisation (WHO) Population Based Screening Framework. Population based screening are simple tests that look for particular changes, or early signs of disease. Government health screening services are modelled on research and evidence, with the aim of maximising disease detection to minimise its impact. They are offered to all individuals in a target group as part of an organised program that is transparent and accountable.

Are there limitations with breast screening?

While screening mammograms are currently the most effective tool for the early detection of breast cancer, they do not cure cancer or stop cancer from growing in the future. Like many tests, they are not 100% accurate, and do have some limitations for a small amount of women:

  • Some breast cancers will not be found on a screening mammogram. This is why it is important that women have no breast symptoms when they come to BSSA. Women with symptoms need to have a different kind of mammogram known as a diagnostic mammogram that has a closer look at areas of concern within a woman’s breast.
  • Some breast cancers can develop during the time between screening mammograms. For this reason, if you find a breast change that is unusual for you, such as a lump, pain or nipple discharge, we recommend that you see your doctor without delay.
  • Sometimes, we may find changes on your mammogram that need further tests. This may not be cancer but further investigation is still needed.
  • It is not possible to be sure which breast cancers found by screening will develop into a life-threatening cancer over the course of your lifetime. Therefore, some women may receive treatment that might not have been necessary in an effort to reduce their risk of a life-threatening cancer in the future. For more information, please see our statement on over diagnosis.
  • Having a screening mammogram means your breasts are exposed to a small amount of radiation. Current research in South Australia suggests that the benefits of having regular screening mammograms outweigh any possible risks from radiation.
  • Breast screening does not prevent breast cancer. It finds breast cancer in its early stages when treatment is most effective.

What should I do if I notice a breast symptom or change in my breasts?

Breast symptoms include:

  • a breast lump or thickening
  • discharge of blood from the nipple
  • any change in breast size, shape or appearance
  • unusual pain or discomfort
  • change in nipple shape
  • puckering or dimpling on the surface of the skin.

Finding any change in the breasts is a worrying experience, but most changes will not be due to cancer.

If a woman is at all concerned about any breast symptoms or changes, she should contact her doctor promptly to arrange further investigation. A doctor may recommend a diagnostic mammogram, which is individually tailored to examine her particular breast symptom in more detail.

Please note: BreastScreen SA is a specialised screening program for women with no breast symptoms. It only performs screening mammograms at the screening visit, not diagnostic mammograms.

Over diagnosis from screening

Most breast cancers found through screening are progressive and would become symptomatic within the women’s lifetime if left untreated. Research is underway to find means of identifying cancers at minimal risk of progression. See our position statement on over diagnosis from screening.

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