What to Expect at a Mammogram
A sigh of relief–the mammogram came back clear.
Two weeks ago, I found a lump in my right breast after 20+ years of problem-free self-breast exams. For two weeks, I walked around, my fingers rubbing the lump, trying not to Google anything about breast cancer. Do you know what it felt like? You know how when you’re home alone and you hear a noise, you pause from movement, holding your breath, waiting to hear it again so you can identify it as a normal house creak or a warning that a serial killer is about to break in through your kitchen window? You want to breath and move, but you’re worried that if you move, the sound will come again at that very moment and it will be lost amongst the other noises such as the rustle of the blanket or the intake of breath.
That’s how I felt for two weeks.
I really didn’t want to talk about it because talking about it made my hand return to my breast and I had already spent enough time walking around the house alone, my fingers palpitating it. I had driven around Washington, D.C. with my hand inside my shirt (oh please don’t look in my car–I swear I’m not a perv, just a nervous woman with a lump in her breast). The night before the mammogram, I had lifted my t-shirt to mark my breast again with a Sharpie and at that moment, my telephone rang showing my neighbour’s name on the caller ID. I dropped my shirt and stared in horror at the window, certain that he was calling to gently inform me that the whole neighbourhood is horrified by the amount of time I spend copping a feel these days.
Except that he was calling because he wanted me to take care of some house stuff while he was away.
I am writing out these details in case they are helpful to someone else who is in the same position of waiting for a mammogram. Please add your own advice or experience at the bottom of the post, especially if I leave out anything because every mammogram is different. It’s sort of a non-IF Operation Heads Up.
The first thing to know is that there are two types of mammograms: diagnostic or screening. Most people have a screening mammogram which means that a series of images are taken, they are read by someone later on, and you receive a report in the mail. Diagnostic mammograms need to be scheduled at special times and the difference is that additional images will be taken of the site of the lump and a doctor will read it immediately so they can follow up with additional tests while you are in the office. My mammogram included a follow up ultrasound.
On the day of the mammogram, do not wear deodorant, lotions, or powders near your chest. The reason is that these things smudge the plates and not only transfer to the machine, but also can blur the image. The place I went had spray deodorant in the bathroom, though I threw my deodorant in my purse the night before so that (1) I could use it afterwards and (2) I didn’t forget and accidentally put it on in the morning.
The other thing to know is to not wear a dress. Wear pants or a skirt because you will only be undressing from the waist up and you will be sitting–most likely–in the cover-up top they provide in a group waiting room.
Also, when I signed in, my office offered to send me a copy of my report if I filled out a sheet stating where I wanted it sent. If your office doesn’t automatically do this, make sure you ask for a copy of the report to be sent to you at this point and then remind the technician or doctor during the appointment too. I have to imagine all offices would be willing to send you a copy so you have it for your own medical files, but my office was particularly proactive, offering it before being asked.
My mother came with me, sending an email a day or two beforehand informing me that she would be doing this. She knows me well enough to know that I was internally flipping the fuck out even though I said I was fine going alone. She came with me when they called me back from the main waiting room to the smaller waiting room. The man who came with his wife was asked to remain in the main waiting room. In other words, the space was ladies only. They brought us to a smaller waiting room and asked us to change into the cover-up, leaving our bras and tops in a locker. And then we waited to be called back.
The mammogram is done standing up. You put on a lead apron around your waist. You stand before this huge machine that has a part that looks like a glass shelf. The technician places your breast on the shelf (relax your body as much as possible and don’t try to help her) after adjusting the height of the shelf and then a top plate of glass comes down, compressing the breast like a…boob sandwich with glass bread. A thick boob sandwich with a lot of filling because while I thought the machine would smoosh them down so hard that they would look like Wile E. Coyote’s hands after the Roadrunner runs them over with a car. You know what I’m talking about? When he has to peel them from the pavement? So…no…the mammogram doesn’t compress your boobs like that. It’s…well…
My mammogram sort of felt like a teenage boy who doesn’t know quite what to do with your breasts. He’s just so freakin’ excited to finally be able to tell his friends that he has touched a pair of mammary glands that he is both shitting himself and pushing your boobs at the same time.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear this, but the mammogram, like most tests involving the body, is described on a widely sliding scale of pain from mild discomfort to holy shit and the thing to keep in mind is that the pain factor varies greatly from breast type to breast type (do you have dense tissue or a lot of fatty tissue), life experience (nothing has ever been as painful for me as my HSG–it will forever be my “10” on a scale of 1–10), skill of the technician, tensing of the surrounding muscle, and whether or not you took a painkiller beforehand.
I did opt to take two Alleve an hour before the exam therefore, take it with a grain of salt when I tell you that it was only mildly uncomfortable. I proactively took a painkiller so who knows what it would have felt like if I hadn’t come prepared. I also concentrated on relaxing my shoulders and back. So, some people will probably say that it was very painful and some will say that it was nothing at all because each person will experience it differently.
She set up the machine and compressed the breast and then ran over to take the image. She then pushed a button from where she was standing and the machine released the breast before she walked over. So all in all, the breast was compressed for under 30 seconds each time. It took a minute or two to set up each picture and get the breast where it should be. So the actual discomfort time was quick.
She took two image (one of each breast), pressing down from the top. Then, she turned the machine and took two additional images (one of each breast) pressing in from the sides. Again, it was just mildly uncomfortable (think panting teenage boy). Then she had to take additional images of the lump area because I was having a diagnostic mammogram, even though it was also serving as my baseline, age 35 mammogram.
She gave me a small sticker with a metal dot on it and asked me to place it over the lump. Then she switched the top plate on the mammogram to a smaller plate and took one more image of that small area. That was the only compression that actually hurt. And on a pain scale, I’d place i
t around a 4. Not something I’d like to endure for hours, but not terrible for the thirty seconds the breast is compressed. She removed the sticker and I returned to the waiting room.
A short time later, I was brought back for an ultrasound of the breast. It is exactly like any other ultrasound (well, except the transvaginal ones)–goo on the breast and then the paddle moves around while the technican examines the screen. A doctor then came in to give the all-clear. She could feel the lump, but said that it didn’t feel worrisome to her and the mammogram and ultrasound both came back with the tissue looking normal with no additional growths or cysts in that area. She told me to keep an eye on it and to alert my doctor if anything changed. As long as there were no changes to the lump, I could wait to have my next regularly scheduled mammogram.
I asked her if I could get a copy of my films (this was in addition to the report that will be sent to me in a few weeks) and then waited in the main waiting room for an additional half hour to walk out of the office with them. It’s worth waiting in the office and walking out with the films so that you have them for your file.
Again, my PSA–I know that I stopped focusing on self-breast exams and pap smears during treatments, assuming that since an RE was up in my ladybits that problems would be found automatically. But this just isn’t the case: you still need to do your yearly pap smear and monthly breast exams. Leave a note for yourself on your calendar, hang one of those water-proof reminders in your shower, but do it. And if you feel anything suspicious, be proactive and ask a doctor instead of worrying that it’s all in your head. PSA over.
So that was my first mammogram experience. Add your own notes in the comment section on your mammogram experience. This post will be linked to from the left sidebar under Operation Heads Up for anyone who wants to use it in the future.