What is breast screening?

Breast screening is the regular examination of a woman’s healthy breasts to find breast cancer early. If cancer is detected early, there is a better chance of treating it successfully.

Mammography, an x-ray of the breast, is used for screening. A mammogram can detect breast cancer before it can be felt. It uses safe doses of radiation. In some provinces or territories, a physical examination of the breasts may also be part of breast screening.

Is there a cost for breast screening?

There are provincially funded breast cancer screening programs in all provinces, as well as in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, that offer free screening mammograms.

How can I take part in a breast screening program?

If you meet the age eligibility of the program you do not need a doctor’s referral to participate in the program – simply contact the program to make an appointment. A list of programs is available at the bottom of this page.

When should I have a mammogram?

Screening guidelines vary by province, but mammograms are generally recommended every two to three years for average-risk women aged 50–74.

If I carry a BRCA gene mutation or am at high risk for breast cancer, when should I have a mammogram?

If you are at high risk for breast cancer, you should have an annual mammogram. Women at high risk would generally begin annual mammograms at 25-30 years old, or 5-10 years younger than the youngest diagnosis of breast cancer in their family. This is something you should discuss with your doctor.

Learn more about breast cancer screening for high risk women.

I’ve found a change in my breast. Can I go to a screening program to get this checked out?

No. Screening programs are designed to screen women with no breast concerns. If you notice a change in your breast, you should make an appointment to see your doctor or go to a walk-in clinic.

How do I get ready for a mammogram?

On the day of the mammogram, you should not use any deodorants, antiperspirants, body lotions or talcum powders. You will be asked to remove all clothing above your waist to get the mammogram, so consider this when you dress to go for your mammogram.

What happens when I go for a mammogram?

  • A registered radiology technologist specializing in mammography will position your breast on a special x-ray machine
  • A plastic plate will be pressed down slowly to flatten your breast and hold it in place for a few seconds
  • You will feel some pressure on your breast for a few seconds during the x-ray
  • This pressure does not harm your breast tissue
  • Usually four pictures are taken, two of each breast
  • The technologist will check the pictures to make sure they are good enough quality for the radiologist to read. If needed, she will take additional pictures
  • Your doctor will receive the results and share them with you

Can I get a female radiology technologist to do my mammogram?

In most cases, you will have a female technologist perform your mammogram. You have the right to always request a female technologist when you go for your mammogram.

What does it feel like to get a mammogram?

You will feel some pressure on your breast. It feels similar to a tight blood pressure cuff. A few women experience pain but it lasts only for a few seconds. If you feel pain during the x-ray, tell the technologist. She may be able to adjust the pressure. The two of you can work together to make it as comfortable an experience as possible.

What can I do to help reduce discomfort I might feel during a mammogram?

  • Most women’s breasts are tender the week before and after their period, so try to book your mammogram for a time when your breasts are not so tender
  • Ask your pharmacist or health care provider about taking mild pain medication before your mammogram appointment
  • Some experts suggest having less caffeine for two weeks before the appointment to help reduce tenderness

Is the radiation exposure from getting a mammogram harmful?

Although mammograms originally involved a fair amount of radiation, over the years x-ray techniques have been refined so that very little radiation is actually used. The amount of radiation from a mammogram is about the same as the average person receives from naturally occurring background radiation in 7 weeks.

I’ve heard about thermography as an alternative to screening mammograms. Is it effective?

Thermography uses highly specialized infrared cameras to detect and measure the heat coming from the body. Using thermography to screen breasts for cancer is based on the premise that cancerous tumors generate heat. There is no clinical evidence that thermography can be used effectively as a screening technique for the early detection of breast cancer. No thermography machines have been approved by Health Canada to screen for breast cancer in Canada.

Although no screening tool for breast cancer is 100% accurate, mammography is still considered the best screening tool for breast cancer available today.

 

Organized breast screening programs in Canada

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Alberta
Alberta Breast Cancer Screening Program (ABCSP)
1-866-727-3926
Age eligibility: 50-69

British Columbia
Screening Mammography Program (SMP) of BC
1-800-663-9203
Age eligibility: 40-79

Manitoba
BreastCheck
1-800-903-9290
Age eligibility: 50+

New Brunswick
New Brunswick Breast Cancer Screening Program
Age eligibility: 50-69

Newfoundland
Breast Screening Program for  Newfoundland and Labrador
1-800-414-3443
Age eligibility: 50-69

Northwest Territories
Breast Screening Program
867-873-0452
Age eligibility: 50-79

Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia Breast Screening Program
1-800-565-0548
Age eligibility: 40+

Ontario
Ontario Breast Cancer Screening Program  (OBSP)
1-800-668-9304
Age eligibility: 50-74

Prince Edward Island
PEI Breast Screening Program
1-888-592-9888
Age eligibility: 40-75

Québec
Québec Breast Cancer Screening Program (PQDCS)
Speak with your doctor or call 8-1-1 (Info-Santé)
Age eligibility: 50-69

Saskatchewan
Saskatchewan Screening Program for Breast Cancer (SPBC)
1-855-584-8228
Age eligibility: 50-75

Yukon
Yukon Mammography Program
867-393-8738
Age eligibility: 40+

Links to more information

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Detecting Breast Cancer Earlier
Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation

Screening for Breast Cancer
Canadian Cancer Society

A Decision Aid for Breast Cancer Screening in Canada
Public Health Agency of Canada

Mammography
Radiological Society of North America

Video: Mammogram for Breast Cancer — What to Expect
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research