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 and be aware of any unusual changes happening in your breasts.
Have regular mammograms with BreastScreen Aotearoa
Two- yearly screening mammograms are provided free through BreastScreen Aotearoa. This service is available in centres around New Zealand, and through a mobile screening unit, which travels to smaller towns throughout the year. To register for this service, phone 0800 270 200 or register online.
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.
However, if you are taking HRT (hormone replacement therapy) to treat menopausal symptoms, your breast tissue will remain at a higher density while you are on the medication. This might make it harder to detect a breast cancer on a mammogram. A small percentage of women in this age group have high breast density even without HRT. Annual, rather than two- yearly screening may be recommended in these situations so discuss this with your doctor.
Be breast aware
Even when 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, so if you see anything unusual, show your doctor immediately, even if your last mammogram was reported as normal.
While most breast cancers are detected by a screening mammogram or when a lump is felt in the breast, it’s important to be aware of other signs which may indicate cancer
How do I check my breasts?
Many women have not been in the habit of checking their own breasts and feel nervous about doing it. Just start by getting to know what your breasts normally look like.
- Check in the mirror, both front on and side to side. Lift your arms above your head and see if this produces any distortion in breast shape. Check the underside of your breasts too
- With one hand on your head, use the other hand to check your breast for lumps or unusual thickened tissue
- Use the flat of three fingers rather than fingertips, and press quite firmly
- Repeat on the other side
If you’re unsure how to check your breasts, watch our instructional video or see step by step instructions and diagrams.
At all ages, it’s important to adopt healthy lifestyle habits to help reduce your risk of breast cancer:
- Stay active. Regular exercise is associated with a decrease in the lifetime risk of breast cancer. Read the World Health Organisation’s exercise recommendations.
- Maintain a healthy body weight. Women who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of breast cancer after the menopause so it’s important to adopt healthy eating patterns. Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and stay away from junk food or make it only an occasional treat.
- Limit alcohol. Alcoholic drinks raise the levels of oestrogen in the body and contribute to breast cancer risk.
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. Annual mammography is funded for women at high risk, who have been referred by their GP.