Breast Cancer

Who can get breast cancer?

Anyone with breast tissue can get breast cancer, including men.

Age is the greatest risk factor. It is recommended that women between 50 and 74 years of age have a screening mammogram every 2 years. In Australia, this is a free service.

People with a family history of breast cancer should be aware of the signs and seek advice from their GP.

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Sue Macaulay, Senior Radiographer at BreastScreen Victoria

Anyone with breast tissue can get breast cancer. So it happens in males and in females, but it's more common in females. One in seven women will get breast cancer within their lifetime. Most women don't have a family history [of breast cancer], but for women with family history it can be more common in those women. But it can happen in any woman. And it's more prevalent the older you get; so breast cancer is more prevalent in women over 50, so age is the biggest risk factor for developing breast cancer.

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I think it's important for women to know that if they find a symptom in their breast, so if they find a problem with their breast, it's important that they go to their GP to get that investigated.

If they find a lump, or their skin changes in their breast, they have a nipple that retracts and goes in instead of pointing out suddenly, then they are all signs that they should go along to their doctor and have that investigated, rather than going to BreastScreen. It's important for them not to wait for their BreastScreen appointment, but to go and see their GP as soon as they can so that they can get that investigated in a more timely fashion.

What are the signs to look out for?

  • There are some signs that you may need to be screened for breast cancer.
  • An unusual pain that doesn’t go away
  • A change in breast size/shape
  • Changes to the nipple such as crusting, redness, discharge, or the nipple turning inwards
  • A new lump/lumpiness, especially in only one breast
  • A change in the skin, such as puckering or a change in texture

Some breast cancer does not show any external signs, which is why it is so important to be screened every 2 years (once you turn 50) even if you have no symptoms.

What happens at a breast screening appointment?

  • You do not need a GP referral to book a free screening (if you are 50-74 years of age, and it has been at least 2 years since your last appointment)
  • The appointment will only take about 10 minutes
  • The radiographer can pause the consultation at any time
  • The radiographer will gently move your breast into place on a metal plate to take pictures from the top and the side
  • There may be some discomfort when the plates squeeze the breast tissue, but you can ask to stop if this causes any pain
  • You can bring a support person, family member, or an interpreter to your appointment. You can also ask BreastScreen to provide a free interpreter in advance

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Probably the most common question is, "Is this going to hurt me?" So for the mammogram itself, there is a lot of information out there that it is going to hurt a lot and that can often be a deterrent for women to coming and attending the program. But it doesn't have to hurt. We do have to put compression on the breast, when we put the breast on the board and another board comes down firm on top. And that has a number of reasons that we do that. Number one is to help the client keep still so that we don't have a blurry picture, so we get a nice clear picture. It also helps spread the breast tissue out so we can get a good even spread of the tissue and can see anything that's going on there if we spread out all the tissue well. It also helps reduce the amount of radiation that the clients get.

So mammogram is using x-ray, and you're getting a small amount of radiation. So it is important that it's firm but we don't want to hurt the client. There can be a very fine balance. For women who have tender breasts, it is uncomfortable for them. But for the majority of women, it's uncomfortable but it shouldn't hurt. It's that fine balance.

So that's the main question we get. We do have to position the women in different ways; we position so the breast is being compressed from the top and also a picture from the side. And sometimes the positioning can also be a bit uncomfortable as well. But it's important that if someone is feeling uncomfortable, if it's hurting or feeling uncomfortable at all, that they let the radiographer know who's doing the procedure so that they can reposition and try to make it as comfortable as possible.

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Nurse counsellors work within the assessment clinics; they support clients through the process of an assessment clinic.

But we always encourage the women to bring a family member or a support person with them, be it a friend, be it whoever they feel comfortable with, just to support them through that. Because I think anyone who gets called back for assessment would be very anxious, I think it would be a very anxiety-provoking period. And so when you are anxious, you sometimes don't get all the information whereas if you've got someone with you to support you, they're sort of another set of ears to hear what's going on. So we do encourage people to bring support people with them.

What's the good news about breast cancer?

Due to advances in awareness, testing rates, and treatment methods, survival rates of breast cancer have increased significantly. The change of surviving at least five years after diagnosis has increased from 74% in 1986-1990 to 91% in 2013-2017.

Will the screening be painful or embarrassing?

Tell the radiographer if this is your first appointment. They will talk you through the process and answer any questions you may have.

While you will need to remove any clothing on your chest for the scan, you can also request a medical gown for privacy.

There may be some discomfort when the metal plates squeeze the breast tissue, but you can always ask to stop if this causes any pain.

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My friend, the same thing happened to her. After she make a mammogram they found something in her breast. So they told her to go to BreastScreen Victoria and she refused. I told her, "No, you should go. I will go with you." I took her with me to the hospital and she make the mammogram, and that scan [showed] just some calcium and it's fine now, she's happy.

Can someone come with me to the appointment?

You can always request that a support person comes with you.

How can I learn more about breast screening?

Visit www.breastscreen.org.au to read more about breast screening.

Speak to your GP or family doctor about your risks and what signs of breast cancer to look out for.

Be open to discussing breast cancer and screening with your family and friends, especially those within the 50-74 age group. Learn from each other’s experiences and encourage everyone to become aware.