Mammograms: when should you start scanning?

Breast cancer means that some breast tissue cells have started to grow abnormally. It can be benign (staying within the breast) or malignant (able to spread outside of the breast). There are several types of breast cancer and different methods of treatment.

While breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among Australian women after certain types of skin cancers, thankfully it is among the slowest to grow. Age is the biggest risk factor in breast cancer, as 75% of all breast cancers only occur in women over the age of 50. Getting screened every two years is the best way to detect cancer early and will offer a better chance of successful treatment.

Thankfully, there has been a 25% fall in breast cancer mortality since the widespread introduction of mammography screening. BreastScreen Australia provides free screening mammograms for women aged 50 to 69.

Risk factors

Breast cancer is usually caused by a combination of factors in a person’s health, environment, heredity, exposure to certain chemicals and lifestyle. Researches can now profile which women may be at a higher risk of developing breast cancer than others, as there are certain risk factors that can mark a higher chance. Please be aware that these factors do not necessarily CAUSE breast cancer on their own. Being overweight, using The Pill, never having a baby, using alcohol and hormone replacement therapy can all provide a higher risk of breast cancer. You can see more exact details on the BreastScreen website at and discuss things with your GP if you are concerned.

Protective factors

Good news, mums: a lower risk of breast cancer is often associated with the following:

  • Having a baby at some point
  • Having several babies
  • Having your first baby at a young age
  • Breast feeding for at least 12 months.

Note that a lower risk does not mean NO risk!

Urban legends

There are a multitude of UNPROVEN legends about what causes breast cancer. These include:

1. Smoking. Although death-sticks greatly increase the risk of many cancers, breast cancer isn’t one of them

2. A bump or a knock to the breast

3. Stress

4. Wearing a bra or using deodorant

5. Breast size

None of these things have ever been shown to cause breast cancer.

Younger women

Women in their 40s or under who have no prior breast problems are able to have a free screening mammogram through BreastScreen Australia if they wish. However, they are not specifically targeted demographic. The reasoning behind this is that the risk of breast cancer in younger women is lower compared to that of older women. Secondly, mammographic screening isn’t as effective in younger women, as the tissue of younger breasts is more solid and can easily show up as false positives on an x-ray. As women grow older their breasts become less dense and cancer is generally easier to spot. Of course, younger women who notice any unusual lumps, pain or nipple changes should be checked as soon as possible.


Breast awareness and self-examination are a vital part of healthcare for all women. Regular self-checks will help you to learn how your breasts feel normally, so if there are any changes you’ll be able to consult your doctor as soon as possible. Don’t take chances.

Symptoms of Breast Cancer


A mammogram is a low-energy x-ray picture. A radiographer will position and compress each breast between two plates for about 15 seconds while the x-ray is being taken. There may be some discomfort. Occasionally, the compression can result in tenderness or bruising, but this doesn’t last very long.

After the scan a specially trained professional will look for any unusual areas in the mammogram printout. They may or may not be cancerous, as mammograms can also show harmless objects, such as cysts. Sometimes, especially if it’s your first mammogram and there are no records for comparison, you may be asked to come back for more tests. Something that can look unusual on your first mammogram may be completely normal for you, so don’t panic.

Who do I call to arrange a mammogram?

Call BreastScreen Australia on 13 20 50 for the cost of a local call. They will provide information on breast cancer screening, access issues and scheduling appointments. A link to their website is also available below.


National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre (“Breast cancer risk factors, a review of the evidence”)

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