Breast awareness

Taking care of your breasts

Monitoring yourself for abnormal breast changes and having regular mammograms once you’re eligible means that, if you do get breast cancer, you’re more likely to detect it early.

The actions you should be taking vary depending on your age, so take a look the guidelines below for your age group.

In your twenties and thirties

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The incidence of breast cancer increases as a women ages. In fact, around 75% of all breast cancer occurs in women over the age of 50, and only 8% of breast cancer cases occur in women under the age of 40. While the risk of getting breast cancer is much lower for younger women, breast cancer is sometimes more aggressive in this age group.

Be breast aware from age 20

The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to be breast aware from the age of 20. This means knowing how your breasts normally look and feel and regularly checking for any unusual changes.The best time to check your breasts is about 10 days after your period finishes, once any tenderness or swelling has settled down. Show your doctor if you have any unusual symptoms that don't go away after your period, particularly if you can feel a hard knot, thickening or lump in your breast or notice any skin or nipple changes. Most changes are not caused by breast cancer but its important to have any new changes properly checked.

Screening mammograms are not recommended for younger women

A mammogram is not recommended as a regular screening tool for women under 40 (unless they have a high risk of getting breast cancer).This is because breast tissue in this age group is naturally denser than in older woman, meaning there is a greater concentration of glandular tissue versus fatty tissue in the breasts. Glandular breast tissue appears white on a mammogram, as do cancers, so it can be difficult in this age group to detect small changes. This means young women might be subjected to unnecessary biopsies ( false positive result) or cancers may be missed ( false negative result).

An ultrasound scan (which uses high frequency sound waves) is also not a reliable stand-alone method of breast screening in young women. It is a useful diagnostic tool for adding extra information when investigating a known abnormality but is not accurate enough for generally scanning the breast.

Understand your family history

Talk with your family members about cancer on both sides of your family. If your mother or sister has had breast or ovarian cancer before the age of 50, it’s recommended you get screened annually from the age of 30. While the risk of inherited breast cancer is low, talk about it with your doctor. If you are potentially at high risk, you may be eligible for genetic testing with Genetic Health Service NZ. This would require a referral from your doctor. Women at high risk of breast cancer should be referred to a breast specialist for advice on appropriate screening. This may include MRIs being added to their screening recommendations.

In your forties

Woman aged 40-49

Your risk of breast cancer begins to increase in your 40s, so it’s time to consider screening mammograms. Breast cancers also tend to grow faster in younger women, so it’s important to be on the lookout for any breast changes.

Consider starting mammograms at age 40

BCFNZ recommends women consider starting mammograms at 40. You’re not eligible for free mammograms until age 45, so you’d need to pay for them yourself at a private radiology clinic. The cost could range from $150 – $200, so it pays to shop around to find the best price.

Breast cancers tend to grow more quickly in this age group, so we recommend having mammograms every year until age 50. From 45 to 50 we recommend alternating each year between BreastScreen Aotearoa’s free mammogram service, and paying for mammograms privately.

Use BreastScreen Aotearoa’s free mammogram service from age 45

From age 45 – 69, you can have a free mammogram once every two years through BreastScreen Aotearoa. The service is available in centres around New Zealand, and through BreastScreen Aotearoa’s mobile screening unit, which travels to smaller towns throughout the year.

Once you turn 45 you will need to register for this service by phoning 0800 270200 or register online.

Be breast aware

Even if you’re having regular mammograms, it’s still important to check your breasts regularly for any unusual changes. The best time to check your breasts is around 10 days after your period, after any tenderness or swelling has settled down. If you see anything abnormal, show your doctor immediately.

Understand your family history

Talk with your family members about cancer on both sides of your family. While the risk of inherited breast cancer is low, talk about it with your doctor. If you are potentially at high risk, you may be eligible for genetic testing with Genetic Health Service NZ, which requires a referral from your doctor.

In your fifties and sixties

Women aged 50-69

Most breast cancers occur in women over 50 years of age, so it’s important that you keep up to date with regular mammograms after turning 50.

Have regular mammograms with BreastScreen Aotearoa

Breast tissue tends to be less dense in post-menopausal women as glandular tissue shrinks and is replaced by fatty tissue. This appears dark on a mammogram image, making cancers ( which appear white) easier to see so screening once every two years is satisfactory for most people. These mammograms are provided free through BreastScreen Aotearoa.

This service is available in centres around New Zealand, and through BreastScreen Aotearoa’s mobile screening unit, which travels to smaller towns throughout the year. To register for this service, PH 0800 270 200 or register online.

Be breast aware

Even if you’re having regular mammograms, it’s still important to check your breasts regularly for any unusual changes.Some cancers can be difficult to detect on a mammogram so if you see anything abnormal, show your doctor immediately.

Understand your family history

Talk with your family members about cancer on both sides of your family. While the risk of inherited breast cancer is low, talk about it with your doctor. If you are potentially at high risk, you may be eligible for genetic testing with Genetic Health Service NZ, which requires a referral from your doctor.

Over 70 years old

Over 70 years old

Even though the free mammogram service currently stops at age 69, people in this age group are still at risk of getting breast cancer. In fact, your breast cancer risk is higher at 70 than it is at 50. Many breast cancers detected in this age group are growing more slowly but it's still important to detect them early so they will be easier to treat.

Consider continuing to have mammograms

Currently mammograms in this age group are not publicly funded, so if you want to continue mammograms into your 70s you have to pay for them yourself. Discuss this issue with your GP, and consider paying for mammograms if you’re able to, and you’re in good health. It's just as important to find breast cancer early in older women as it is in younger women. In your 70s the glandular breast tissue has usually decreased markedly and been replaced by fatty tissue, making cancers much easier to detect.

BCFNZ recently petitioned parliament to raise the free screening age to 74 which the Government responded to by prioritising it as health priority. Find out more about this announcement.

Be breast aware

Even if you’re having regular mammograms, it’s important to check your breasts regularly for any unusual changes. If you feel or see anything abnormal, show your doctor immediately.

Understand your family history

Talk with your family members about cancer on both sides of your family. While the risk of inherited breast cancer is low, talk about it with your doctor. If you are potentially at high risk, you may be eligible for genetic testing with Genetic Health Service NZ, which requires a referral from your doctor.

Checked your breasts lately?

We'll show you how. Checking your breasts is easy as TLC. 'Know your normal', so you can find any changes in your breasts as soon as they appear.

  1. Touch
    Touch both breasts. You’re feeling for any lumps or thickening of the tissue, even up into the armpits.
  2. Touch
    Look in front of a mirror. Can you see any physical changes to the breast shape, skin or nipples?
  3. Touch
    Check any breast changes with your doctor. Even if you’ve had a mammogram recently.