Why get screened?
Screening mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, when treatment may work better.
Who should get screened?
If you’re 45 to 74 years of age, start making mammograms part of your regular health routine. The risk (chance) of breast cancer increases as you get older. Follow these guidelines to know when to get screened:
- Women younger than 40: The risk of breast cancer at this age is low. Generally, screening mammograms aren’t needed before the age of 40. Talk to your healthcare provider if you’re concerned about having an increased risk of breast cancer.
- Women 40 to 44: It’s less clear that the benefits of mammograms outweigh the risks for women in this age group. Talk to your healthcare provider about your breast cancer risk and your need for mammograms.
- Women 45 to 74: Breast cancer screening is proven to have the most benefit within this age range. Have a mammogram every 2 years or as decided by you and your healthcare provider.
- Women 75 and older: The benefits of continuing to screen once you turn 75 depend on your personal health (how healthy you are overall). Talk to your healthcare provider about whether or not continuing to screen is right for you. If you choose to continue screening, the Alberta Breast Cancer Screening Program in Alberta Health Services will no longer send you reminder letters to screen once you turn 75.
Unsure if breast cancer screening is right for you? Try the Risk Calculator.
What if I have breast implants?
Breast cancer screening is still very important if you have breast implants. Implants can interfere with screening mammograms, so you’ll need more images in order to detect (find) abnormal changes. Remember to let the radiology clinic know that you have breast implants when booking your mammogram appointment.
What is a mammogram?
A mammogram is an x-ray of the breast. There are 2 different kinds of mammograms: screening and diagnostic.
Screening mammograms are regular checks used to find early signs of cancer in women who have no noticeable breast problems or symptoms. They can find abnormal changes in the breast that are too small to be felt by you or your healthcare provider. If your screening mammogram finds any abnormal changes, your healthcare provider may recommend having a diagnostic mammogram.
Diagnostic mammograms take more images for a closer look at the area of concern found on a screening mammogram. They’re also used for women who’ve had breast cancer before or who notice unusual breast changes, such as:
- A new lump in the breast or armpit
- A nipple that’s pointed inward (inverted nipple), if it isn’t usually
- Crusting, bleeding or a rash on the nipple
- Unusual fluid coming from the nipple (nipple discharge)
- Dimpling or thickening of the skin in one area of the breast
If you think you need a diagnostic mammogram, speak to your healthcare provider for a referral.
If you don’t have a healthcare provider, check out these resources to help find one:
- Visit Alberta Find a Doctor
- Call Health Link at 8-1-1
- Visit Inform Alberta
- Visit College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta
What to expect with a mammogram
You might have a few questions about how a mammogram is done. The process itself should only take about 10 minutes and will be done by a female technologist to help you feel comfortable and at ease.
How should I prepare for a mammogram?
On the day of your appointment you should:
- Wear a separate top and bottom as you’ll have to remove clothing from the waist up.
- Avoid wearing perfume, antiperspirant, deodorant and body powder. These can affect the mammogram results.
What happens during a mammogram?
Once you’re standing in front of the mammography machine:
- One breast at a time is positioned (placed) on the machine. The machine will be adjusted to your height.
- A second plate will press down on your breast for a few seconds to spread out the breast tissue so that small abnormalities can be seen.
- For a screening mammogram, 2 x-rays will be taken of each breast; 1 from the top and 1 from the side. Several more x-rays are taken for diagnostic mammograms. If tomosynthesis is used, multiple x-ray images are taken to create a video-like view of each breast. Learn more about tomosynthesis under frequently asked questions.
- These x-rays will then be looked at by a radiologist for any abnormal changes.
- Once the exam has been reviewed by a radiologist, you’ll receive a result letter in the mail from the Alberta Breast Cancer Screening Program. Learn more about getting your mammogram results.
Does a mammogram hurt?
Your breasts need to be compressed (flattened) to get the best image possible. This may be uncomfortable or slightly painful, but tolerable. Each compression only lasts a few seconds, so any discomfort will be very short. If you normally have tender breasts, you may find it more comfortable to have your mammogram at least a week before or after your period.
Find out why compression is important when having a mammogram from the BC Cancer Agency Screening Mammography Program.
Benefits and risks of a mammogram
Mammograms are generally very safe. However, as with any procedure, having a mammogram has both benefits and risks.
Informed decision making: Screening for breast cancer is a choice. Make your choice by carefully thinking about the benefits and risks of breast cancer screening. You may experience these benefits or risks in a different way than others. You’ll have to decide for yourself if you think the benefits are worth more than the risks. Talk about this with your healthcare provider to help you decide if screening is right for you.
Review the resource below to help you think about how the benefits and risks of breast cancer screening fit with your own personal values.
Making an informed decision about breast cancer screening [booklet]
Where to get screened
Mammograms are done at specific radiology clinics, some hospitals and through mobile screening clinics through Alberta Health Services’ Screen Test that travels to over 120 rural communities throughout Alberta. The requirements for booking a screening mammogram in Alberta are different depending on your age:
- Women aged 40 to 44: You need a referral from your healthcare provider for your first screening mammogram. After your first mammogram, you can book your regular appointment by providing the name of your healthcare provider at a radiology clinic of your choice.
- Women aged 45 to 74: You can book a screening mammogram without a referral. In Alberta, some clinics may need women to have a healthcare provider to book a screening mammogram. This is so that the clinic knows who to send the results to and who will do the follow-up, if needed.
- Women aged 75 and older: If you choose to continue screening, you’ll need a referral from your healthcare provider.
If you’re ready to book your screening mammogram, visit Where to Get Screened to find a complete list of locations, including mobile clinic sites.
LGBTQ2S+ community members and breast cancer screening
Peer-reviewed evidence on cancer screening for the LGBTQ2S+ community is evolving and the program is committed to enacting evidence-informed actions to better serve all Albertans. We will update this section on a regular basis in partnership with our LGBTQ2S+ stakeholders’ input and emerging evidence.
Should transgender and gender diverse people get regular breast/chest cancer screening with mammography?
Before getting a mammogram, all individuals are recommended to speak with their healthcare provider about screening. Please consider seeing your healthcare provider to assess your breast/chest cancer risk level and discuss whether breast/chest cancer screening is right for you.
The information below is a guide for whether screening mammograms may benefit you.
If you’re between ages 45 to 74,
I am transgender or non-binary and was assigned female at birth1, do I need breast/chest cancer screening with mammography?
You should see your healthcare provider to assess your breast/chest cancer risk level. If you are considered to be at average risk, regular breast/chest cancer screening is recommended. The risk level assessment considers your age, family history, and if you have breast/chest tissue.
1We are aware that the term “sex assigned at birth” may not be acceptable for everyone. However, we are using this term to avoid causing confusion with the screening recommendations. Our apologies in advance for any harm this term may cause.
If you have had top surgery, usually some original breast/chest tissue will remain, so ongoing monitoring in the form of physical examination for breast/chest cancer is recommended. Breast/chest self-awareness is also recommended.
Talk to your healthcare provider about how to best monitor your breast/chest health.
I am on testosterone, do I need breast/chest cancer screening with mammography?
If you still have breast/chest tissue and are on testosterone, you should still have regular breast/chest cancer screening with mammography if you are at average risk between 45 – 74. Testosterone therapy isn’t believed to significantly increase the risk (chance) of breast/chest cancer in transgender men.
I am transgender or non-binary and was assigned male at birth1, do I need breast/chest cancer screening with mammography?
Transgender people who have undergone breast/chest feminizing surgery are generally at lower risk of breast/chest cancer than the general population; however, breast/chest cancer can still occur. You should have regular breast/chest cancer screening if you’ve been taking feminizing hormones (e.g., estrogen) for 5 or more year years total (i.e., years do not have to be consecutive).You do not need breast/chest cancer screening if you’ve never taken feminizing hormones, or if you’ve been taking feminizing hormones for less than 5 years total. Instead, you should receive counselling around breast/chest self-awareness and regular clinical breast examination to assess the degree of breast/chest development.
Tell your healthcare provider if you have a family history of breast/chest cancer.
I had a hysterectomy, do I need breast/chest cancer screening with mammography?
You should still have regular breast/chest cancer screening with mammography even if you’ve had a hysterectomy unless you have had top surgery. Talk to your healthcare provider about how to best monitor your breast/chest health.
I have breast/chest implants, should I and can I still get screened for breast/chest cancer with mammography?
You should get screened, if you are 45 – 74 years old, have breast/chest implants, and have either been on feminizing hormones for 5 or more years in total or were assigned female at birth.
Breast/chest cancer screening is still important if you have breast implants. Special techniques are used to make sure the most amount of breast/chest tissue is seen in the image and to make that the implant doesn’t rupture. Be sure to mention that you have breast/chest implants when booking your mammography appointment as more time might be needed to ensure the best image is taken. Talk to your healthcare provider about how to best monitor your breast/chest health.
I bind my chest, does this increase my chance of getting breast/chest cancer?
The risks of breast/chest cancer from chest binding haven’t been well studied, so it’s not clear at this time. Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that binding increases the risk of breast/chest cancer.
However, it is important to check-in with your healthcare provider to monitor your breast/chest health while binding.