Breast screening

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

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women affecting up to 1 in 7 women over their lifetime. The purpose of the screening programme is to:

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

To screen women who are well with no symptoms of breast lumps or changes, a screening mammogram is done. This is a low-dose x-ray of your breast tissue to look for any early signs of breast cancer.

Who can have a free screening mammogram?

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

  • are aged 45-69 years
  • have no symptoms of breast cancer
  • have not had a mammogram in the last 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 five years from when your cancer was found.

*To find out who is eligible for publicly funded (free or subsidised) personal health and disability services in New Zealand, visit the Ministry of Health website

Benefits of regular screening

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

  • If you are under 50, screening reduces your chance of dying from breast cancer by about 20%.
  • If you are between 50 and 65, screening reduces your chance of dying from breast cancer by about 30%.
  • For women aged 65 to 69, screening reduces your chance of dying from breast cancer by about 45%.

Breast cancer risk

The chance of a New Zealand woman getting and dying from breast cancer each year is shown in the table below. Because there are effective treatments available for breast cancer, most women who get breast cancer do not die from it.

  • The risk of breast cancer increases as you get older.
  • Of those women who get breast cancer, three-quarters are 50 years and over.
  • Most women who get breast cancer have no close relative with the disease.
  • Even among women with a family history of breast cancer, only a very small number will be at high risk of getting breast cancer.

Read more about breast cancer risk factors

Chance of developing or dying of breast cancer (%)


Age (years)

For every 10,000 women






The chance of developing breast cancer is






The chance of dying from breast cancer each year without screening is






The chance of dying from breast cancer each year with screening is






Source: NZHIS. Data are averages for 1997-2002 (incidence) and 1996-2000 (mortality).

What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is a breast x-ray. 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 when there is a very good chance of successful treatment.

  • Screening mammograms cannot prevent development of breast cancer, but are thought to reduce the chance of dying from breast cancer by approximately a third.
  • Mammograms are most useful in women 50 years and over if done every two years.
  • They can detect about 75% of unsuspected cancers in women under 50 and 85% in women over 50.
  • Mammograms are safe because only very small amounts of radiation are used in two-yearly screenings.

Read more about mammograms

What does BreastScreen Aotearoa offer?

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

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

What about my results?

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 their next mammogram in two 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. Most women with breast cancer will be advised to have surgery to remove the cancer.
  • Some women will need further treatment such as radiation therapy, hormone therapy, chemotherapy or a combination of these.

Signs to watch 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
  • pain in the breast that is unusual
  • puckering or dimpling of the skin
  • any change in one nipple, such as:
    • a turned-in nipple
    • a discharge that occurs without squeezing
    • a rash or reddening of the skin that appears only on the breast.

How do I join BreastScreen Aotearoa?

To register with BreastScreen Aotearoa, you can ring 0800 270 200 or enrol online.

  • You should also ring this number if you have changed your address since your last mammogram.
  • 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.

Learn more

Breast screening New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation 
BreastScreen Aotearoa National Screening Unit
Mana Wahine - Kokiri Marae Breast Screening Services, Wellington
Informed Consent and your rights BreastScreen Aotearoa

Credits: Original material supplied by BreastScreen Aotearoa. Reviewed By: Andreea Dumitru, Senior RN from CCDHB, SIDU - Capital & Coast & Lower Hutt Last reviewed: 31 Oct 2015