Mammograms get a bad rap. On the fictional list of Most Dreaded Tasks, that annual procedure ranks right up there with root canal, car repairs, and filing taxes. Why is this so? A routine mammogram is a quick and usually painless procedure. Once you’re in the exam room, it takes around 5 minutes to complete—and it could literally save your life. Eight out of nine women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history, but with early detection, the 5-year survival rate for breast cancer patients is nearly 100 percent!
As the lead mammography technologist at a busy radiology office, I see many women coming in for the first time who are scared and anxious. Often, they have put off the procedure for years simply due to fear. We constantly hear jokes and terrifying stories about how awkward and painful a mammogram is, but I can’t tell you how many times, at the end of the procedure, that same woman who had been dreading the exam tells me that it “wasn’t so bad” and promises to tell all of her friends and family to get their girls in for a mammogram. (It’s the most rewarding part of my job.)
The procedure involves standing in front of a machine. The tech places your breasts, one at a time, on a “shelf.” The machine gently compresses the breast in order to stabilize it and ensure the clearest pictures. Then click, just like an xray. That’s it—mammograms are that quick. In our office, it takes an average of 3 to 6 minutes to perform a routine exam, which includes 4 total images; 2 of each breast. It actually takes longer to complete the paperwork than the exam itself! You may require additional images depending on your breast density and body type, if you have breast implants, or if you are currently experiencing related issues.
Most importantly, let’s dispel the myth that mammograms are painful. It may be a bit awkward or uncomfortable due to the nature of the exam—you are standing there with your girls exposed, but we live in a technological era that helps us in so many ways, including mammograms. Mammograms have come a long way since their inception in the 1950s—can you imagine? Compression of the breast is still necessary, but with advancements like 3D tomography, less compression is used and better images result.
Now that you know the statistics and the truth, here’s what you can do:
- Get to know your body. If you know what your breasts feel like, you will be more likely to catch small changes or abnormalities. Monthly beast-self exams are an important element of early detection. Make this part of your routine, during a shower or at bedtime.
- Schedule your mammogram! As a general rule, try to schedule the exam during the first week of your menstrual cycle. This will not affect the accuracy of your mammogram, but it will help prevent the added breast sensitivity and discomfort related to hormonal changes that naturally occur during your monthly cycle. If you’re hesitant, enlist a friend or family member to book theirs, too!
- Follow preparation instructions. You’ll want to show up for your mammogram in clothing that is easy to get in and out of. You will be directed to wear no powders, perfumes, or deodorants on your body—this is important. Many beauty products are made from ingredients that can show up on a mammogram, and these elements can resemble calcifications which may result in abnormal results of your mammogram and lead to additional images being ordered.