I had my first mammogram 4 years ago. I have heard some women talk about it like it is the single most painful thing that they have ever experienced. Other women told me that it was no big deal. The unknown is always frightening for people. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it seemed like the perfect time to share my own experience to make it less frightening for first-timers. I have a strong family history of breast cancer in my family. The Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care recommends that most women begin screening at age 50 and then have a mammogram every 2 to 3 years until age 74. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends women ages 50 to 69 have a mammogram every 2 years. Due to my family history, I have to have one every year.
Now, onto the burning questions – what happens and does it hurt? The most important thing that the lab forgot to tell me the first time that I had one, was to not wear talcum powder and more importantly deodorant the day that you have one. Also remember to bring your requisition form – the lab reminded me about that…a lot. If you have hair longer than chin length, bring a hair elastic – you may have to tie your tresses up. Once you get there and check in, you just wait for them to call you.
From there, you change into a fashionable gown and walk into another waiting area where you fill out a form while praying that the front closing gown doesn’t open in front of a bunch of strangers (maybe that was just me). When the mammogram technician came to get me, she was very kind. She walked me quickly through what would happen , warned me that there may be some discomfort but promised she would be quick. It is a good idea to listen carefully to the technician’s instructions; it will make the process faster.
She positioned me to take the first image from the top, meaning, that my breast would be placed between two plastic plates which are then pressed together to flatten it to get a clearer picture. The process is repeated on the other side. It was more awkward than uncomfortable since you have to twist your head a bit so that it is out of the way. She then told me that she would take a side image of each breast – pressing them in between the plastic plates from the side, and that it would be more uncomfortable than the first round. The good news is that it wasn’t really painful and the whole thing was over in less than 5 minutes. There is nothing to be embarrassed about – the technicians, every time I have had one, are sensitive and try to get you out as quickly as possible. They are professionals who do this every single day. We also have a hard time discerning between pain and discomfort. A mammogram is uncomfortable. One trick that I have learned is to try to avoid scheduling one when you have PMS if at all possible since that is the time of the month when your breasts are likely to be the most sensitive.
Everyone has to be their own health care advocate and make the best possible decisions based on what they know of their family history and advice from their family doctor. Taking health matters into your own hands can be empowering in a way. There is no reason to fear a mammogram, and with breast cancer, early detection is the key to ensuring the best possible chance of survival.