10 Things I Learned About Mammograms

Over the course of my life, the way I’ve thought about my boobs has changed.

When I was a kid, I thought of them as weird. (Barbie didn’t have nipples, so why did I?) When I was a teen, I thought of them as useful. When I was in my 20s, I thought of them as fun. When I became I mom, I thought them as useful again, but in a new way.

And now that I’m over 35, I think of them as … kind of scary. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still useful and fun and weird. I just don’t want to sacrifice my life for them. Unfortunately,  each year 40,000 women do, and that’s in the U.S. alone.

Which is why I just had my first “dreaded mammogram” this weekend. And, you know what? It wasn’t dreadful at all. Here’s what I learned, and what you should know, too.

Read the follow-up to this article: if you get a call-back (like I did).

10 Things I Learned From My First Mammogram

1. They can be surprisingly emotional.

Due to a scheduling mishap, I came to the Ballard Women’s Imaging Center once before, but didn’t end up getting a mammogram then. On that trip I found myself tearing up as they scanned … my insurance card. I wasn’t expecting that.

Thinking of all the women who’ve gotten bad news in this office on a such a routine excursion (specifically Sue, my grandmother, and a dear friend) hit me right between the eyes. I had to count the pamphlets on the desk to keep from losing it. Luckily on my second trip, I had my emotional armor in place when I walked in. But I didn’t end up needed it because …

2. A Vicky can make all the difference.

My screener, Vicky, was friendly and understanding. She proactively offered information and encouraged me to ask questions. Within five minutes, we both knew why each of us were there. Me: because of my promise to Sue, a recent scare with a friend, and the history of breast cancer in my family. She: because her mother had died of breast cancer when she was 15, leading this photographer to steer her career to radiology when she had her own kids. Knowing that Vicky had a purpose for being there and a personal vendetta against breast cancer really made me trust her, physically and emotionally. I cannot stress the value of that in such a vulnerable moment. There’s baggage in tow for everyone who walks in that room. We all have our personal griefs and fears when it comes to breast cancer and having “a Vicky” there made me feel like I had a fellow soldier on my side, not a medicinal robot invading my personal space.

3. Many of the people working there have a reason for doing so.

Vicky told me that she wasn’t the only one in the office who came to this profession as a “calling” to fight cancer. One of her first patients was also a photographer with her own breast cancer struggles. When that young women came in for her own mammogram and learned of Vicky’s transition from photography to radiology, she was inspired to do the same. Now she works alongside Vicky in the very same office!

4. The equipment recently changed from dark room to digital.

Years ago, I had read and been told by doctors that, when the time came for me to start having mammograms, I should ask to go straight to the machine for dense breasts. According to Vicky, that information is a little outdated. Back then they used analog (film) photography, complete with a dark room in back for developing the scans. Now most of the machines are digital, which “sees” more, especially in dense breasts.

It’s still not nearly as good as MBI scans though, as I’ve since learned. But get this: insurance companies won’t cover that! Learn more.

5. This is what it looks like …

I thought it looked like a cross between a giant microscope and a hot air popcorn popper.

6. This is what happens …

That’s obviously not me, and there wasn’t any hugging, but there was much smooshing.

7. It doesn’t hurt.

Granted, maybe that was just my experience, but it was simply a little uncomfortable. Vicky told me that it can take some people’s breath away and encouraged me to breathe deeply. However, I didn’t need to. With the exception of one little pang while we were getting adjusted, a dental cleaning or even a bumped elbow is far worse.

8. As with most things, the fear of it is more dangerous than the thing itself.

My mother had thankfully told me (repeatedly) that it was “just pressure, not really pain,” and Vicky applauded this. She had a previous patient who’s mother had said it was “the worse thing ever” and that her daughter should never have a mammogram because they’re so painful. So, can you guess what happened? The poor girl fainted! When she came to, Vicky asked if she had fainted from the pain, but the women replied that it hadn’t been painful at all. The anxiety of the procedure had caused her to black out.

If fear of the pain of a mammogram is keeping you from getting one, just think of the pain of cancer. Choose wisely.

9. You may need to push your doctor to get one. Don’t let that deter you.

You may have seen in the news in the last few years that the medical community was proposing less screening at a later age (50 instead of 40). I remember Sue being livid when she heard this, and her oncologist agreed. Early detection is our biggest ally in fighting breast cancer, and luckily science has changed (back) it’s tune on this. Now the recommendation is: once you turn 40, you should have one every one or two years.

For someone like me, who has a strong family history, many doctors recommend starting before age 40. My maternal grandmother died of the disease at age 45, and all of my grandparents died of various cancers at a rather early ages. Even given all that, nearly every medical personnel I encountered in the process of scheduling this mammogram politely questioned the necessity for me. Since my mother and sisters (thankfully) have never had breast cancer, it wasn’t as much of a concern. But based on the recommendation of my doctors and the family history findings of the National Cancer Institute, I wasn’t willing to take that risk. Plus, I had promised it to Sue. So I made it happened.

10. Checking your own breasts is important—and could maybe even be fun?

For all of you who have no family history (or some, but equal to or less than me), you might not be able to convince your doctor to get screened early. That’s where your health falls into your own hands. A friend of mine recently found a lump and went in to have it checked. It was lymphoma. She was 35. Luckily she caught it early, and a year later, she’s back to being cancer free.

This was really a wake-up call for me. I realized I need to be more familiar with the health of my own breasts. Chances are you do, too. Guys, you can also get involved. I mean, come on! It’s an excuse to feel your girl up, not to mention keep her alive. That’s a win-win.

Vicky also told me about an organization called Check Your Boobies, started by a young woman affected by breast cancer. It offers additional ways to help make sure you’re looking out for your breasts. You can sign up for an e-mail reminder that will tell you when it’s time to check your breasts, or you can even have one of them host an informative breast-checking party at your house. (Think Tupperware party, but with women feeling their own boobs. Now there’s an image for you, guys.) I’m seriously considering doing this for my friends. Yeah, it might be a little silly and awkward, but I love my girlfriends enough to make sure they’re safe and healthy. Embarrassment be damned!

If a “boob party” is a little out of your comfort zone, simply read and file away the how-to card below. I know, it’s just another thing to do and fit into your schedule, but isn’t it nice to have a schedule … and boobs … and a life?

Do it for your kids, your partner, your family and friends. But most of all, do it for yourself.

Long live our boobs!

Read the follow-up to this article: if you get a call-back (like I did).

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13 thoughts on “10 Things I Learned About Mammograms

  1. This was really comforting to read.

    Your friend Geraldine pointed me this way after learning I’m having my first mammogram tomorrow morning. I haven’t quite made it past step 1 in your story but everything you wrote completely resonated with how I’m feeling right now.

    I’m hoping that I can work through it like you did. Thank you so much for writing this. I didn’t realize how much anxiety I had about this until earlier today when I got the “reminder” call. Haven’t been able to think of anything else since I got off the phone with the scheduler. I honestly feel a LOT better after reading this. If at the very least – I know I’m not the only one who gets/got a little freaked out about this.

  2. I just shared this with a friend of mine who is about to go in for her first mammogram, and she definitely appreciated it.

    Thank you so much for posting this. (Why don’t more people talk about this sort of thing?!)

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