Breast screening

BreastScreen Aotearoa is a free national breast screening programme for eligible New Zealand women aged 45–69 that checks for signs of early breast cancer.

What is the purpose of the breast screening programme?

The purpose of the screening programme is to:

  • find cancer at an early stage, which is when treatment has the best chance of leading to a cure
  • reduce the number of women who die from breast cancer.

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women. It affects up to 1 in 9 New Zealand women over their lifetime. Find out more about breast cancer

Who can have a free screening mammogram?

In New Zealand, you can have a free screening mammogram every 2 years through BreastScreen Aotearoa if you:

  • are aged 45–69 years
  • have no symptoms of breast cancer
  • have not had a mammogram in the past 12 months
  • are not pregnant or breastfeeding
  • are eligible for public health services in New Zealand.*

If you meet the criteria above and have had breast cancer, you can re-enter BreastScreen Aotearoa 5 years from when your cancer was found.

* Find out who is eligible for publicly funded (free or subsidised) personal health and disability services in New Zealand.

What are the benefits of regular breast screening?

Screening does not stop you getting breast cancer but it does reduce your chance of dying from it.

  • The risk of dying from breast cancer is reduced by about a third in women who are screened compared with women who have not been screened. 
  • Your risk is reduced even more if you have regular breast screening. 

Is there any downside to breast screening?

There are a couple of downsides to breast screening:

  • Screening may not pick up all breast cancers.
  • It can lead to over-treatment of lesions that may not become life-threatening.

However, the benefits of breast screening outweigh the downsides. Breast screening saves lives. 

How is breast screening done?

The screening is done using a mammogram. A mammogram is a low-dose x-ray of your breast tissue to look for any early signs of breast cancer. It can show changes and abnormalities in your breasts before anything can be seen or felt.

A mammogram is the best available test to detect small cancers at an early stage. Catching cancers early means there is a very good chance of successful treatment.

  • Screening mammograms can't prevent development of breast cancer, but are thought to reduce the chance of dying from breast cancer by about a third.
  • Mammograms are most useful in women 50 years and over if done every 2 years.
  • They can detect 8 to 9 out of 10 unsuspected breast cancers in women aged 45 to 69.
  • Mammograms are safe because only very small amounts of radiation are used in 2-yearly screenings.

Read more about mammograms.

What service does BreastScreen Aotearoa offer?

The programme offers free screening mammograms to all women aged 45–69 who have no symptoms of breast cancer. Follow-up assessment is also free.

  • Screening is done every 2 years.
  • Each mammogram is checked by at least 2 specialist doctors (radiologists).
  • High standards are based on national policy and quality standards and these are independently checked.

What do my results mean?

The programme will send your results to you within 2 weeks of having your mammogram. If you have had mammograms elsewhere, BreastScreen Aotearoa needs to see these to compare the results with your current mammogram.

  • For most women, the result will be normal and you will be asked to return for your next mammogram in 2 years.
  • A small number of women will be phoned to come back because something needs further checking.
  • This service, which is also free, may involve more mammograms, an ultrasound and perhaps taking a small sample of breast tissue for examination under a microscope.
  • Most women recalled will not have breast cancer.
  • The few women who do have breast cancer will be referred to a specialist for treatment.

Read more about breast cancer treatment.

What breast symptoms should I watch out for?

If you notice any breast symptoms (changes that are not normal for you), see your doctor as soon as possible. Do not wait for your mammogram to have this problem checked.

Possible signs of breast cancer are:

  • a new lump or thickening
  • a change in breast shape or size
  • a pain in your breast that is unusual
  • puckering or dimpling of the skin on your breast
  • a rash or reddening of the skin that appears only on your breast
  • any change in one nipple, such as:
    • a turned-in nipple
    • redness or crusting around a nipple
    • a discharge that occurs without squeezing.

Read more about breast cancer symptoms.

How do I join BreastScreen Aotearoa?

To register with BreastScreen Aotearoa, you can phone 0800 270 200, enrol online or talk to your GP.

  • Once enrolled, you will be sent a reminder every 2 years.
  • Centres are located throughout New Zealand and all have wheelchair access.
  • Mobile screening units also travel around the country.
  • Phone BreastScreen Aotearoa on 0800 270 200 if you have changed your address since your last mammogram.

Learn more

The following links provide further information about breast screening. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.   

Breast screening Breast Cancer Foundation, NZ
BreastScreen Aotearoa National Screening Unit, NZ
Mana wahine – Kokiri Marae breast screening services Wellington
Informed consent and your rights BreastScreen Aotearoa, NZ
Breast screening Time to Screen, NZ

References

  1. Breast cancer in New Zealand  Breast Cancer Foundation National Register, NZ
  2. Morrell S, Taylor R, Roder D, et al. Mammography service screening and breast cancer mortality in New Zealand: a national cohort study 1999–2011 Br J Cancer. 2017;116, 828–839. 
  3. Benefits and harms of screening mammograms Time to Screen, NZ
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Poornima Nair, FRNZCGP, Hamilton Last reviewed: 05 Aug 2020