Today, I want to share my first mammogram experience with you and what you can expect on your visit.
In case you didn’t know, women 40 and over should begin screening mammograms once a year, unless they’ve had a family history of breast cancer or tested positive for the BRCA gene in which case your doctor will suggest you start getting mammograms earlier than 40. Screening mammograms are just that, a screening of your breast tissue. Should those images come back with something troubling, then you’ll have a diagnostic mammogram done to take a different look.
In my case, I chose to go to a diagnostic imaging center, meaning they do all sorts of screenings. However, you may feel more comfortable going to a breast care clinic – they still do the same testing, but they only do breasts as opposed to all body parts. Regardless of where you go, you want to choose a place where the employees are concerned about you as the patient rather than their bottom line. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the Diagnostic Imaging Center prepared me before my visit. They gave me a list of dos and don’ts as well as a video of what to expect. For example, you should not wear deodorants or lotions the day of your scans because they look for calcium deposits and certain deodorants and lotions can skew the images. They also suggested wearing upper body clothing that is easily disrobed. The most important piece of advice, however, was to stay as relaxed as possible.
As you may have figured out by now, I tend to do most things in life through the lens of humor. Laughter is the best medicine as they say. I also tend to use humor to disarm people in tense or stressful situations. Sometimes, all everyone needs is a good laugh. So they took me back to a room where I locked up my personal belongings, changed into an upper body gown, and away we went. The woman responsible for me was amazing. She was very patient and answered my 10,000 questions. She explained to me exactly what she was going to do, how the machine worked, and that she would be taking a total of four images, two on each side. The most important advice she had was to breathe and stay as relaxed as possible. She said that the more relaxed I was the easier it would be to get my placement just right in the machine which would make for the best scans possible. My first instruction was to do something with my arm from the gown and I was like, can I just take it off? I mean, the woman sees boobs all day long and I’m not shy. So why wrestle with the gown thing when it’s just easier for everyone to be bare? We get going and she’s telling me how to hold my arms and where to look so I don’t smack my forehead into the plexiglass and then she tells me a pretty good story about how one day she was placing a woman and somehow the woman moved, and she slipped and smacked the lady’s boob with the side of her face. She apologized to the woman profusely and they both had a pretty good laugh about the whole deal. All in a day’s work as a mammography tech, right?
You hear horror stories from women about how painful mammograms are, and maybe they were worse when technology wasn’t as good, but I didn’t feel any pain whatsoever with mine. Pressure, yes. Pain, no. Once the scans were done, I went back to the changing room and waited for the radiologist to read the results and report back to me. Fortunately, everything looked great and the results were classified as benign. They gave me a short report that included my breast tissue type, my lifetime risk of breast cancer as estimated by the Gail Model which takes into account factors such as the age of your first period, race, pregnancies, etc. You want that percentage to be under 10% and mine was 11.1%. The reason for this is based on the fact that I have no babies and I’m taking HRT or hormone replacement therapy. This is why it’s important to have mammograms done on a yearly basis starting at 40. Because everything was normal, the doctors now have a baseline scan in case something ever comes back abnormal. Plus, regular mammography helps detect early signs of developing breast cancer so you can treat it right away rather than it growing completely out of control. What can you do if you are under 40? Give yourself regular self-breast exams. The best place to do this is in the shower and what you’re looking for is anything unusual, lumps, bumps, etc. And make sure you’re checking in your armpits too. When I was working for the American Cancer Society one thing I found amusing was that quite often, men are the ones finding irregularities in the breasts of women…for obvious reasons, right? For a while, Hooters hosted events for men that taught them what lumps could feel like which I thought was a brilliant idea and I hope they are still hosting those.
In all seriousness, I know that body part screening is scary to a lot of people. They think if they don’t get screened then they can’t find anything wrong. I also know that many people don’t have insurance to cover preventative treatments. However, there are many organizations out there that can help with the cost of preventative measures and many hospitals host free screening days during certain times of the year. For example, a lot of places hold free skin cancer screenings in the month of May. Plus, there are many local healthcare places that operate on a sliding scale that’s based on your income. Why am I telling you all of this? Because you really have no excuse to not get your yearly check-ups. Trust me, your friends and family want you around for as long as possible so don’t let fear keep you from taking care of your health. And like I always say, you have to be your own advocate for your health because no one is going to do it for you. Get your questions answered, push back on your doctors, and make them see you as a person, not a statistic. Or do what I’m about to do and break up with doctors who give you terrible advice or treat you terribly. Obviously, I’m willing to let a bit of bedside manner fall to the wayside for a doctor who is highly intelligent. However, there’s lacking bedside manners and then there’s straight-up jackwagon. You don’t have time in your life for a jackwagon. Doctors are humans and sometimes they need a little reminder that they are in fact humans, as are you. And in case you didn’t know, if you ever come across a doctor, nurse, or any staff that behaves badly, you can always report them to the customer service department of the hospital they work for, and in cases of extremely inappropriate behavior, a lawyer. For the most part, I believe that doctors go into medicine because they want to help people but just like everyone else, sometimes life circumstances get in the way and all they need is a little nudge to remind them what they are there to do.