Breast Cancer Screening

Topic Overview

The type and frequency of breast cancer screening changes as you age, and experts differ in their recommendations about when or how often women should have screening. Your province may have specific recommendations. If you are not sure about what your province recommends, talk to your doctor about how often you need a screening.

  • Ages 40 to 49: For women in this age group, the benefits of regular mammograms are not clear. You should discuss the benefits and harms of mammograms with your doctor. He or she can help you decide when to start and how often to have a mammogram. This decision should be based on your situation, your individual risk, and what you prefer.footnote 1, footnote 2
  • Ages 50 to 74: The Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care (CTFPHC) recommends that you should have regular mammograms (every 2 to 3 years).footnote 3
  • Age 75 and older: You may want to talk to your doctor about whether you need breast cancer screening.footnote 3

If you have high risk: Talk to your doctor about how often you need screening if your mother, sister, or daughter had breast cancer or you have a family history of cancer. You may need a referral from your doctor to have a mammogram.footnote 1

You can find out your personal risk level at

Early detection is an important factor in the success of breast cancer treatment. The earlier breast cancer is found, the more easily and successfully it can be treated. Tests used for screening include:

  • Mammogram. A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast that can often find tumours that are too small for you or your doctor to feel. Standard mammograms use film to record images of the breast, but most mammograms done now are digital mammograms. Digital mammograms record images of the breast in an electronic file.
  • Digital breast tomosynthesis (3-D mammogram). This test uses X-rays to create a three-dimensional image of the breast. This is a newer test that may be used alone or with a digital mammogram.
  • Clinical breast examination (CBE). During a clinical breast examination, your doctor will carefully feel your breasts and under your arms to check for lumps or other unusual changes. Talk to your doctor about whether to have a clinical breast examination.

Make sure you know what your breasts normally look and feel like. When you know what is normal for you, you are better able to notice changes. Tell your doctor right away if you notice any changes in your breasts.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the breast may be used as a screening test for women who have a high risk of breast cancer. This includes women who test positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, or have two or more close family members who have had breast cancer before age 50. MRI may also be useful for women who have breast implants or for women whose breast tissue is very dense.

Your breast density can affect how clearly your breast tissue can be seen on a mammogram. Still, if you have dense breasts and if nothing else increases your risk for breast cancer, a mammogram is the recommended test for you.

For more information, see the topic Breast Cancer.

See also:

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  1. Canadian Cancer Society (2013). Screening for breast cancer. Available online:
  2. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2009). Screening for breast cancer. Available online:
  3. Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care (2011). Recommendations on screening for breast cancer in average-risk women aged 40–74 years. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 183(17): 1991–2001. Available online:

Other Works Consulted

  • American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2011). Breast cancer screening. ACOG Practice Bulletin No. 122. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 118: 372–382.
  • Oeffinger KC, et al. (2015). Breast cancer screening for women at average risk 2015 guideline update from the American Cancer Society. JAMA, 314(15): 1599–1614. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2015.12783. Accessed January 21, 2016.
  • Siu AL, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2016). Screening for breast cancer: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendation statement. Annals of Internal Medicine, published online January 12, 2016. DOI: 10.7326/M15-2886. Accessed January 12, 2016.


Current as ofDecember 19, 2018

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Sarah A. Marshall, MD - Family Medicine
Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Douglas A. Stewart, MD, FRCPC - Medical Oncology

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