8 Things I Wish I Knew Before My First MammogramSep. 30, 2019
By Tonya Stancil
I take a fairly practical approach to my health. So when I turned 40, I wasn’t surprised when my primary care physician mentioned it was time for my first mammogram. I already knew what a mammogram is and how important they are, so I didn’t need to be convinced to add it to my list of annual health to-dos.
But, that didn’t mean I didn’t have questions. You probably know the ones I’m talking about:
Is it going to hurt?
How long does it take?
What actually happens in there?
Now that I’m a few mammograms wiser, here’s what I wish I knew before my first mammogram.
A mammogram probably isn't as bad as you think it’s going to be
I’m not going to say I felt fully relaxed during my first mammogram, but it wasn’t any more awkward or uncomfortable than seeing my gynecologist — something I’d been doing for decades.
During the mammogram there’s definitely pressure, and there’s certainly discomfort — but I wouldn’t say it’s painful. Not to pick on dentists, but I think dental work is worse than a mammogram.
Your mammogram won’t actually take very long
The mammogram process is pretty quick and easy. Here’s a play-by-play of what happens in the exam room:
First, I remove my top and bra and put on the provided robe.
Then, a mammogram technologist helps position one of my breasts on the specialized X-ray machine.
Next, the machine compresses my breast for just a few seconds while the technologist takes an X-ray. This process is then repeated about two or three times for each of my breasts.
Each compression is very quick, and the entire imaging process lasts about five minutes.
Then I get dressed and continue on with my day.
Your technologist will walk you through each step of your mammogram
I’m always impressed by and appreciate my mammogram technologist (who is always a woman).
Maybe it’s the fact that she is completely professional — knowing exactly what to do and clearly explaining it to me as she does it. Or maybe it’s because she carries on just the right amount of casual conversation, while still getting right down to business.
Either way, my mammogram technologist helps make what should be a vulnerable situation feel like a relatively stress-free experience.
You may get called back for more imaging
Just like most things in life, I’ve learned that breast imaging isn’t always perfect. And, yes, I’ve gotten that call before — the one where they tell me I need to come back in for more imaging.
In my case, they quickly mentioned I shouldn’t assume the worst and that this callback was precautionary (one of my images wasn’t as clear as they’d like it to be). Obviously, no one wants to have to go back — but my experience taught me not to panic immediately if it happens.
When it comes to picking an imaging facility, do your homework
I had my first mammogram at a general imaging facility, and, at the time, it seemed fine. Although, it was a bit awkward sitting next to male patients in the waiting room while wearing a clinical exam gown.
Now, I go to an imaging facility that specializes in breast imaging, and I can tell you that it’s a totally different experience.
I still have to spend five minutes up close and personal with an X-ray machine, but the rest of my appointment is like being at a spa. The atmosphere and décor are calming, the waiting room has a tea bar and I get a comfy, heated robe to wear instead of a paper exam gown. Plus, there’s deodorant for me to apply before I leave. (Been there, done that tip: Don’t wear deodorant or lotion to your mammogram.)
Ask for a 3D mammogram
Technology has advanced since my first mammogram, and now I always schedule what’s called a 3D mammogram. I heard about this newer type of mammogram from my doctor, who told me it provides a clearer picture of my breast — reducing the chance of being called back for follow-up imaging, and improving the chance of catching breast cancer as early as possible.
3D mammograms aren’t offered everywhere, so you do have to ask about it when you’re scheduling your mammogram. But, to me, the added benefits make it worthwhile.
Find an imaging center you like — and stick with it
Going to the same breast imaging center each year is about more than just convenience.
After my first mammogram, a large part of what my doctor is looking for in my scans are changes from my past mammograms.
You can always request past images be sent to a different imaging facility, but it’s easier to do your homework ahead of time and find a specialized breast imaging center that you think you’ll like from the get-go.
The peace of mind makes a mammogram worth it
What I know for certain is that doctors can’t treat something they don’t know I have — and that breast cancer is so much easier to treat when it’s caught early.
Before I open the results of my mammogram every year, I take a deep breath. After I read my results, I give myself plenty of time to appreciate the wave of relief I feel when I see the check mark in front of, “No sign of breast cancer.”
Tonya Stancil works for Houston Methodist. Even though it’s been a few years since her first mammogram, she wanted to share her take on what it’s really like.