Breast cancer

Cancer screening

Breast cancer

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The purpose of cancer screening is to find cancers before they cause symptoms.

Screening is only used for certain types of cancer where there is a proven benefit from a safe and accurate test that can be used in a large number of people who do not have any symptoms. 


What is cancer screening?

The purpose of cancer screening is to find cancers before they cause symptoms. This is important because cancers found early have better outcomes.

Screening is only used for certain types of cancer where there is a test that can be used in a large number of people. These screening tests look for abnormalities that could be signs of cancer.

Screening is for people who don’t have any symptoms. If you have symptoms, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

Breast screening programs

Screening programs are government-funded programs which offer free screening to large numbers of people. The screening program for breast cancer is called BreastScreen.

The BreastScreen program invites women aged between 50 and 74 for a free screening test (mammogram) every two years. Women aged 40-49, and over 74 can also take part but don’t get sent an invitation.

A screening mammogram can pick up cancers in the breast before they are big enough to feel.

  • Most women who are screened will have a normal mammogram.
  • Women who have an abnormal mammogram will be called back for more tests.
  • Only a very small number of women called back for tests will have breast cancer.

Breast screening abnormalities

If an abnormality is found, this does not always mean you have cancer. You will need further tests to find out.

You will be contacted  to return for further tests. These can include a breast ultrasound, clinical breast examination and a needle biopsy. If required your GP will be notified and asked to refer you to a specialist.

Breast screening in high-risk groups

If you have a high risk of breast cancer, you may need to be screened earlier and more often. You also need to be breast aware and see your GP if you notice any breast changes.

This includes women with:

  • the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation or some other genetic syndromes
  • a strong family history of breast cancer
  • previous diagnosis of a breast abnormality
  • previous radiation therapy to the chest.

If you think you have a high risk of breast cancer, talk to your GP about screening. 

The guidelines for screening women with a high risk of breast cancer are very complicated. You should talk to your GP, who will refer you to a family cancer clinic or genetic counselling service if required.

Where to get help

There are people you can talk to for more information or support.

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