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Breast awareness and screening

There are 3 steps to being breast aware:
  1. Become familiar with the normal look and feel of your breasts.
  2. See a doctor if you notice any unusual breast changes.
  3. If you're aged 50 to 74, have a mammogram at BreastScreen every 2 years.

Become familiar with your breasts

Women of all ages are encouraged to become familiar with the normal look and feel of their breasts at different times of the month. Looking in the mirror regularly is a good way to learn the normal shape of your breasts.

There's no right or wrong way to feel your breasts; some women might find it easier in the shower/bath, laying in bed or while they're getting dressed. Remember to check all of the breast tissue and to feel near the surface and deeper into the breast.

Breast changes to look out for include:

  • a new lump or lumpiness, especially if it's only in one breast
  • a change in the shape or size of your breast
  • a change to the nipple, such as crusting, ulceration, redness or recent inversion
  • a nipple discharge that occurs without squeezing
  • a change in the skin of your breast such as redness or dimpling
  • an unusual pain that doesn't go away.

Nine out of 10 breast changes aren't due to cancer, but it's important to see a doctor to be sure. If you find a breast change that's unusual for you, see your doctor without delay.

For more information on checking your own breasts, download Finding breast cancer early: every woman's guide to breast health or contact the Cancer Council on 13 11 20 for a copy. 

Screen for breast cancer

Mammographic screening is the best method for detecting breast cancer early, before it can be felt or noticed.

Women aged 50 to 74 without breast problems and who haven't had breast cancer are invited for free breast x-ray screening every 2 years at BreastScreen. A doctor's referral isn't needed. Your results will be sent to you within 2 weeks.

Women aged 40 to 49 are welcome to attend BreastScreen, but because of their breast density, breast x-ray screening is less effective.

Women over the age of 74 are also welcome to attend BreastScreen.

You can make an appointment by calling 13 20 50 (for the cost of a local call). Visit BreastScreen Victoria for more information.

Note: If you have a specific breast problem such as a breast lump, the BreastScreen program isn't suitable. It's recommended you see your doctor who'll organise any tests needed to diagnose your problem.

Benefits of breast cancer screening

  • Regular breast cancer screening for women aged between 50 and 74 reduces the number of women who die from breast cancer.
  • Having regular screening mammograms is the best way to find breast cancer early before it can be felt or noticed.
  • Finding breast cancer early often means that the breast cancer is small, less likely to have spread to other parts of the body and can be more effectively treated.

Limitations of breast cancer screening

  • Screening mammograms are not 100% accurate. This means that sometimes women might experience further tests, which would otherwise not have been necessary. It also means that for a small number of women, the screening mammogram might not find a breast cancer that is present.
  • Some women are diagnosed with breast cancer between screening mammograms.
  • Screening might have adverse psychological effects on some women (e.g. anxiety related to test results or follow-up tests).
  • Some women may be diagnosed with breast cancer that wouldn't develop into a life-threatening cancer. Unfortunately it's not always possible to differentiate between a breast cancer that would become life threatening and one that would remain dormant for the duration of the woman's life. Therefore, some women receive treatment that mightn't have been necessary, in an effort to reduce their risk of a life-threatening cancer in the future.
  • Screening mammograms involve exposing women to a small amount of radiation. There's a small risk of side effects associated with radiation exposure.
  • Having regular screening mammograms doesn't prevent women from getting breast cancer, nor mean women will necessarily survive their breast cancer.

Based on the best available evidence, women are encouraged to participate in the BreastScreen Australia Program, but due to the limitations described above, it needs to be an informed personal choice.

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