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Diagnostic Methods


What is a mammogram?

A mammogram is an x-ray of breast tissue that can find changes too small to be felt during a physical examination.

A screening mammogram is used to check for breast cancer in women who have no signs or symptoms.

A diagnostic mammogram is used to check for breast cancer after a lump or other sign or symptom has been found.

What happens during a mammogram?

During a mammogram, each breast is pressed between two x-ray plates, which spread the breast tissue out so that clear pictures can be taken. Both breasts will be checked during a mammogram and usually two x-ray pictures are taken of each breast. This can be uncomfortable, but it only takes about 20 seconds.

How do I get the results of my mammogram?

The results will be mailed to you and, with your consent, your doctor.

Who should have a mammogram?

A screening mammogram is recommended for all women aged 50 to 74, provided they have been informed about the risks (see below) as well as the benefits of screening. Mammography screening is freely available to women aged 50 to 74, every two years, under the BreastScreen Australia program. Women aged 40-49 and those aged over 74 can also be screened free of charge, but they will not receive invitation letters.

It is also important for women of all ages to get to know the normal look and feel of their breasts. If you notice any changes or feel something unusual, talk to your doctor. These symptoms may not mean that you have breast cancer but your doctor may refer you for a mammogram. If the lump that you or your doctor could feel does not show up on the mammogram, other tests, like an ultrasound, MRI or biopsy, may be done.

What are the benefits?

A review of Australia's BreastScreen program published in 2009 found that the program had reduced breast cancer mortality in Australia by between 21 and 28%. Subsequent studies have estimated mortality reduction benefits ranging from 34 to 50%.  

What are the risks of a mammogram?

Early detection of breast cancer can significantly improve treatment outcomes. The goal with any screening program is to minimise the potential harms and maximise the early detection of tumours. The potential risks include over diagnosis, inaccuracies, (false negative and false positive screening results), and radiation exposure.

While these risks have to be considered by individuals, Cancer Council Australia supports the evidence that shows the benefits of mammograms outweigh these potential harms - a position also taken by the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer.

If you have any concerns about mammograms or would like to discuss the risks and benefits, talk to your doctor or call Cancer Council's information and support line on 13 11 20.

How much does a mammogram cost?

Screening mammograms are free every two years to all Australian women aged 40 and over who do not have any signs or symptoms of breast disease.

Women who have been referred for a mammogram by their doctor may have to pay a fee. While there is a Medicare rebate for mammograms, many private imaging clinics charge more than the Medicare Schedule Fee. This means that women who use these services must pay the balance.


Understanding Breast Cancer booklet, Cancer Council Australia © 2020. Last medical review of source booklet: July 2021. 

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