4 May 2016

Give free mammograms to older women, govt urged

8:35 pm on 4 May 2016

The government is being urged to extend free screening for breast cancer to women up to the age of 74.

Breast cancer screening at a hospital in Haute-Savoie, France.

Breast cancer screening Photo: AFP

Free screening is currently available to women between the ages of 45 and 69, but the Breast Cancer Foundation says women over 70 have a higher risk than women in their 50s.

A petition calling for the change, signed by 10,000 people, was presented at Parliament today.

The Breast Cancer Foundation says extending screening to 74 - as Australia has done - would mean two extra free mammograms for 80,000 women.

One of the Foundation's ambassadors, Lorraine Downes, said she was in disbelief when her mother was diagnosed two years ago.

"My family, I'm from a family of four girls, we were absolutely shocked when we found out about mum's diagnosis because we thought 'mum's 76, oh she's great, there's no way mum could get breast cancer'."

She said her mother could have had a better outcome if free breast screening was extended.

"If she'd found that lump earlier, she may not have to had a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, we know that early prevention is the way to have a good result."

Early detection was key, and many women couldn't afford to pay about $150 for private screening in their older years, The Breast Cancer Foundation said.

The Foundation's chief executive Evangelia Henderson said more than 3000 women a year were diagnosed with breast cancer.

"Out of the 3000 women that will be diagnosed every year about a quarter of them, around 700, will be over 70. When you think about it, that's a lot of women."

Radiologist Madeleine Wall said the screening age needed to be extended to match the average woman's life expectancy.

"Now that life expectancy for women is so much higher than it was 20 years ago, it will be a very valuable thing to happen for women in that age group."

Dr Wall said a lot of women over 70 didn't realise they were still at risk.

"A lot of women don't realise - they assume that because the breast screening programme, as it is now, stops at age 69 - that their risk stops as well. But that is definitely not the case."

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said the Ministry of Health completes reviews of the evidence base for screening programmes.

He said he expected the Ministry to take the latest research into account on an ongoing basis.