How to Detect Breast Cancer

We can reduce the impact of breast cancer by increasing prevention and early detection of breast cancer, and by increasing the understanding and better utilisation of breast cancer screening in Australia.

According to The University of Adelaide, almost 8 per cent of women aged between 40-74 years have extremely high breast density, which can make it harder for health professionals to detect breast cancer on a screening mammogram. Breast density (also known as mammographic density) is the amount of white and bright regions seen on a mammogram, and according to a newly formed group of breast cancer researchers, it matters.

These women with dense breast tissue are more likely to develop breast cancer in the future.

Dense breasts have less fatty tissue and more non-fatty tissue, such as more glands that make and drain milk, compared to breasts that aren’t dense. That means it is harder to see tumours in breasts with denser tissue on a mammogram. These women are at risk of having tumours missed at the time of screening.

What can you do?

  • Mammography remains the gold standard for breast cancer screening. ABCR researchers encourage women to use the opportunity to have free regular mammograms through BreastScreen services across Australia. In Australia, free routine mammographic screening is available through BreastScreen Australia services in each state for women aged 50 to 74 years old
  • Women can have their breast density assessed through a mammogram, which can be arranged through their GP
  • Supplementary screening methods, including ultrasound and MRI, are available for women to be used in addition to mammography. However, it is important that women consider the costs, both emotional and financial, and the risk of false positive results associated with these other technologies
  • Be breast aware. All women, regardless of age, can be familiar with their breasts and check them regularly. Any changes should be reported to their doctor

Breast Cancer Screening

Breast mammography has been proven to be a reliable and efficient diagnostic tool, detecting around 90 per cent of breast cancers.

A mammogram is simply an x-ray of the breast and from age 40 women can have mammograms. At locations across the country, BreastScreen Australia runs a regular screening program for women over 40.

For women aged 50-74 without breast cancer symptoms, BreastScreen Australia recommends a screening mammogram every two years. This is because more than 75 per cent of breast cancers occur in women aged over 50.  This is the best way to detect breast cancer early, before there are any signs or symptoms. Early detection in this age group offers women a better chance of successful treatment and recovery.

Women aged between 40 and 49, or 75 and older are recommended to talk to their GP about whether they should have a free screening mammogram.

Women with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, or with a diagnosis of breast cancer in the past five years, should talk to their GP or contact BreastScreen Australia on 13 20 50 to discuss the most appropriate care. For more information please go to www.cancerscreening.gov.au

Examining Your Breasts

Make sure you take time to examine your breasts regularly. It may be good to put a reminder in your diary or your phone to prompt you.
Some tips:

  • Look at your breasts in the mirror noting the size and shape
  • Some women prefer to examine their breasts lying down or when they are in the shower or bath
  • Make sure when you examine your breasts you include the area up to your collarbone and down to below your bra line and under your arm
  • Use the flat of your hand to start then followed by the flat part of your fingers to go deeper into the tissue
  • Please notify your GP or medical specialist immediately if you notice any changes

Research on the way

With early detection a key factor in preventing breast cancer, The Breast Biology & Cancer Unit at the Basil Hetzel Institute for Translational Health Research are investigating why the breast is so susceptible to cancer, not in terms of lifestyle factors, but the actual underlying cellular mechanisms that underpin breast cancer susceptibility. This team is led by Associate Professor Wendy Ingman.

The team has a number of focus areas:

  • Understanding the role of our immune system
  • Mammographic density
  • Investigating how genetics affects breast cancer risk
  • Research on how spinal cord memories during pregnancy can affect the risk of breast cancer
  • Establishing a breast tissue bank