I remember as a younger woman counseling my patients about mammogram and thinking – “I’m so glad I’m not old enough to need that yet!” Fast forward many years and now, I too am getting reminders to schedule my mammogram each year. As an Ob/Gyn I know it’s good for me. I know it’s the best screening tool we have to detect breast cancer. And with a family history of breast cancer, I know I’m at risk. So why do so many women hesitate or even dread going in for their mammogram?
I think for many of us, getting a mammogram feels like a marker of old age. Like a resignation that our body will likely fail us some day. No one wants to think about being diagnosed with cancer. And no one is particularly excited about standing half naked while two large metal plates squish your breast tissue.
For many women, they feel anxious about the possibility that this test could lead to a cancer diagnosis. For others, it’s about the discomfort of the procedure.
Whatever, it is for you – I want to try to unpack this a bit today.
Let’s start with some of the basic facts about mammogram.
Mammograms were first developed in the 1960s but weren’t widely used in the way they are now until the 80s and 90s. A mammogram is essentially two plates that compress your breast tissue and transmit x-rays through it. We now have digital and 3-D technology that has improved the images from mammogram and allows for detection of abnormalities even earlier than before.
Mammograms detect breast cancer anywhere from 1 to 4 years before it would be clinically evident – meaning before you or your doctor could feel anything abnormal on exam!
Mammograms aren’t perfect. For women who have “dense breast” tissue or who are at very high risk for breast cancer (such as BRCA/breast cancer gene carriers), ultrasound and/or MRI may also be recommended.
The radiation from mammogram is quite minimal. It’s less than a standard chest x-ray. And even less than your radiation exposure when flying. Yes, air travel does expose us to radiation! A flight from New York to Los Angeles is about the equivalent of 5 chest x-rays.
So back to my mammogram…
I called to schedule it and was given the option of several locations. I chose to go to the breast imaging center which I realize is a privilege to have access to and that many women don’t have this option. That being said, if you do have a choice, I’d recommend going to a facility that specializes in mammogram and breast imaging. When your images are read by a radiologist specially trained in this area you’re less likely to be called back for additional images.
I was able to schedule my mammogram about 2 weeks out and popped in for it after I had finished seeing my patients for the day. I was brought to a changing room to undress from the waist up and given a robe to change into. Mine was soft and pink – another likely perk of being at a breast center! After a short wait I was brought into a large room with a huge machine that twisted and rotated in order to compress my breast tissue in several different ways to get the images they needed – about 4 images per breast. The tech (who was female) positioned me in front of the machine and would help reposition before each image. While the image was being taken, I was asked to hold my breath to avoid any artifact from moving.
And about 10 minutes later, I was done! I got dressed and went on my way.
I received a message from my primary doctor about 3 days later with the results. All good! Until next year.
I have to say, it was such a relief to be done with it and be able to check this off my list of things to do.
And it got me thinking about how we can reframe mammograms to feel empowered by them instead of dreading them.
Which leads me to…
Ways to reframe getting your mammogram!
Instead of thinking about it as something annoying, scary, or painful, tell yourself what a good job you are doing of taking care of your body.
Reward yourself after your mammogram by going out to lunch with a friend, having a glass of wine, or doing some other self-care that fills your tank.
If mammogram is uncomfortable for you (or if you are worried it may be) – make sure you schedule it for the week or two after your period and consider taking Ibuprofen or Tylenol an hour before the procedure. After it’s over, do something that relaxes you and feels good – like a hot bath or a massage.
And lastly, if your mammogram makes you feel old – remind yourself that you are not old, but instead mature and wise and you are making good decisions about your health. You can be an inspiration for younger women in your life to encourage them to take care of themselves as well.
We are only born with one body and we must take care of it – boobs and all.
Dr. Quimby is the co-founder of FemEd – a female health education platform that educates females of all ages about their bodies.
She is also a former professor at USC Keck school of Medicine where she led the OBGYN clerkship. She is passionate about education and empowering her patients and her students through knowledge and shared decision making.
She is currently a full time OBGYN at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles.
Dr. Quimby has received accolades for teaching and leadership. She has been named Top Doctor by both Pasadena and Los Angeles Magazines. She is a regular speaker throughout the community giving talks to both the public and other physicians. She has contributed to LAist, SELF, and several other news media sources.
Her special interests include: preconception counseling and improving sexual health
When she’s not educating the public on all things female health she can be found traveling with her 2 young daughters and ever supportive husband.