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Women's Health | February 6, 2018 | Author: Naturopath

cancer, women's health


Approximately 1 in 8 women in NSW will develop breast cancer –this is why routine mammograms are important for early detection. A mammogram is an x-ray of breast tissue which can detect changes which are not felt during a physical examination. In this article we will discuss the importance of getting regular mammograms and investigate their side-effects, limitations and other alternatives.

What does a mammogram involve?

What does a mammogram involve?A mammogram involves each breast being gently compressed between two flat x-ray plates. Two pictures are taken of each breast—and although many women complain about discomfort and pain, the procedure only takes about 20 seconds.

In preparation for the mammogram you will be asked to undress from the waist up and to remove any jewellery. It’s best to wear pants and a top compared to a dress. Usually a gown which opens from the front will be provided.

All up the test itself takes approximately 10-15 minutes and the results are usually available in two weeks’ time.

Screening and diagnostic mammography

Mammography to detect breast cancer can be done by screening mammography or diagnostic mammography at a breast clinic or diagnostic imaging service.

Screening mammography is used to detect breast cancer early and is a free service provided through the BreastScreen Australia program. It detects breast cancers which are too small to be felt and is the best way for early detection—especially before there are any signs of the disease.

A screening mammogram every two years is recommended for women aged 50 to 69 years.

Diagnostic mammography is used to investigate a breast symptom that you or your doctor may be concerned about, such as breast pain, a lump or discharge from the nipple. 

Benefits of regular mammograms

Here are some very important benefits of having regular mammograms:

  • Breast screening reduces the number of deaths from breast cancer
  • A screening mammogram can find very small cancers before they can be felt or noticed by you or your doctor
  • When breast cancer is found early, the cancer is more likely to be small, which is when treatment is most successful
  • Finding breast cancer early means a better chance of survival
  • Women whose breast cancer is detected by BreastScreen NSW are half as likely to need a mastectomy
  • For women over 50, a screening mammogram is the best method for early detection of breast cancer
  • Breast screening is completely free and only takes 15 minutes

Mammography side-effects, limitations and concerns

Usually the benefits of a mammogram far outweigh its potential risk. Here are some limitations, side-effects and common concerns from having a mammogram procedure.

Abnormal findings

Abnormal findings do not automatically mean that you have cancer.

In fact, most women who are called back for further tests after an abnormal mammogram result are found not to have breast cancer.


Mammograms are not 100% accurate and in a small number of cases a screening mammogram will look normal even if breast cancer is present.

Unclear results

Sometimes further tests are needed because the mammography results are unclear. Some things that can cause difficulty with reading the film include:

  • lumpy breasts, which are common in women under 30 years of age
  • Dense (muscular) breasts, common in pre-menopausal women
  • Previous breast surgery or radiation therapy
  • Breast implants
  • Movement of the breast during the procedure.

Severity of the cancer

If left untreated, most breast cancers found by screening mammograms would grow and become life-threatening. However, not all those that are detected would progress to become life-threatening. Currently, it’s not possible to tell exactly which breast cancers may become life-threatening and which may not.

Radiation exposure

Radiation exposureDuring your screening mammogram, your breasts are exposed to a very small amount of radiation, which is about the same amount as you get from walking around outside.

Modern mammography machines use the smallest amount of radiation possible while still obtaining high-quality x-ray pictures.


Most women experience discomfort when their breasts are pressed against the plates. However, some women can experience pain and may require less compression.

To reduce pain during and after a mammogram you could try the following:

  • Explain your concern with pain during a mammogram beforehand and ask for less compression and padding if available
  • Some women experience breast pain in the two weeks leading up to their period—so it is best to avoid a mammogram during these times
  • Try taking omega-3 fish oil, turmeric and magnesium for pain relief beforehand and four days afterwards
  • Try an icepack before and after the procedure
  • Avoid caffeine

Other forms of detection and diagnosis

Other methods used to help detect or diagnose breast conditions may include:

Other forms of detection and diagnosisBreast awareness 
it is important for all women to know the normal look and feel of their breasts. 

If you notice any breast changes, nipple discharge or a lump, it is important that you visit your doctor as soon as possible.

Clinical examination 
the doctor physically examines the breast tissue to feel for lumps or thickenings.

Ultrasound scan 
a device that uses sound waves to form a picture of the inside of the breast.


Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
 a process that produces three-dimensional pictures of the breast using radio waves and a magnetic field.

Fine needle aspiration
 fluid or cells are drawn off using a fine needle, then examined in a laboratory.

Core biopsy
 a tissue sample is taken, using a needle under local anaesthetic, for examination in a laboratory.

Important take home points

  • Mammography is a low dose x-ray of your breasts
  • Mammograms detect breast cancer early
  • The benefits of regular mammograms far outweigh the risks
  • Women aged between 50-69 years require a mammogram every 2 years
  • It is important all women perform regular breast examinations and know what is normal for them
  • If you notice any breast changes, lumps or nipple discharge, seek medical advice as soon as possible
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de Groot JE, et al. Pain-preventing strategies in mammography: an observational study of simultaneously recorded pain and breast mechanics throughout the entire breast compression cycle. BMC Womens Health. 2015;15:26

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