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, while 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, their breast cancer is sometimes more aggressive.

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 checking for any unusual changes at least once a month.

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 persist beyond your pre-menstrual phase, particularly if you can feel a hard knot, thickening or lump in your breast or notice any skin or nipple changes.

Mammograms are not standard for younger women

A mammogram is not recommended as a screening tool for women under 40, as their breast tissue tends to be denser than older women’s.This means there is a greater concentration of glandular tissue versus fatty tissue in the breasts. This can make it difficult to see small changes on a mammogram image meaning some cancers will be missed or unnecessary biopsies may be performed. An ultrasound scan (which uses high frequency sound waves) is also not a reliable method of breast screening in young women. It is a useful diagnostic tool for adding 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 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

The 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 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.

To register for this service, PH 0800 270200 or register online.

Be breast aware

Even if you’re having regular mammograms, it’s important to check your breasts at least once a month 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 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 recedes and is replaced by fatty tissue.This makes mammograms clearer and easier to read. Breast cancers in this age group usually grow more slowly than in women in their 40s. For these reasons, 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 important to check your breasts at least once a month for any unusual changes. If you see anything abnormal, show your doctor immediately.

Understand your family history

Talk with your family members about cancer on both sides 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 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.

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.

BCFNZ has recently petitioned parliament to raise the free screening age to 74. Find out more about this campaign.

Be breast aware

Even if you’re having regular mammograms, it’s important to check your breasts at least once a month 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 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.