What A Mammogram Truly Feels Like

No woman faces it with enthusiasm, but is it as painful as you think it is? Let this 44-year-old tell you the truth.

Having been a magazine editor for the past 19 years, eight of which were spent with a women’s lifestyle title, breast cancer awareness is not something new to me. Home self-exams, bi-annual mammograms, facts and myths, new discoveries, shock stories, triumphant survivals… I’ve read and covered them all.

And yet, I belong to the 65 per cent of women recently found by the Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF) to have not regularly conducted self-examinations or gone for regular checks. (At least, I take a small measure of comfort in that I’m not one of the 27 per cent, among the 65 per cent, who have never done any checks.)

If you asked me why, I can’t give you a straight answer. I can give you plenty of excuses though. Too busy, too troublesome, too expensive, too tired, I forgot, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with my breasts… all those thoughts have run through my mind at some point or another to stop me from making an appointment.

Truthfully, to help myself remember this annual check-up, I’ve even tried to follow what many of my friends do — schedule their annual health checks around their birthdays. But because mine falls at the end of the year and, worse still, around Christmas, I’ve never been able to drag myself to the clinic at that time of the year. My doctor’s probably on festive leave too, I tell myself.

I had my first mammogram at age 28, along with my first PAP smear. Two breastfed kids and 13 years later, I went for my second mammogram at age 40, this time with an ultrasound included. And just last month, I had my third mammogram done — the one which strengthened my resolve to continue with my annual checks.

I remember my first mammogram to be a bit of a cold experience. The room was cold, the metal plates that clamped down were icy, and the radiographer who performed the mammogram, quite unfeeling as well.

“Stand closer! Turn your face! Hold your breath!” I was quite clueless about the proceedings and followed her robotic instructions obediently.

Each breast had to be clamped twice, from the top-bottom position as well as a 45-degree position. Sent home with a clean bill of health, I was relieved it was over and remembered thinking to myself, “No wonder women are fearful of mammograms!”

With that one unpleasant box in my list of health exams checked, I waited till I was 40 to do my second mammogram, as part of an overall annual health check. Again, it went by in a blur of unpleasantness, aided by tired-looking staff who herded us patients along like sheep from the shearing station to the abattoir.

Last month, when I scheduled a PAP smear with my gynae, I was chided for not diligently going for my annual mammogram and promptly scheduled for one the following week. He ordered a breast ultrasound as well.

At age 44, neither a mammogram veteran nor newbie and bearing the burden of the less-than-pleasant memories of my past experiences, I confess I faced the check with an inward groan and some dread.

Seriously, a mammogram already feels like such an invasion of privacy — what with the girls being manhandled and squashed unceremoniously to get a clear scan. But as it turned out, this third experience was quite different.

Having breastfed two kids, my breasts are no longer the perky B-cups they used to be. Back in my late 20s, getting my firm boobies into the mammogram machine was both painful and slightly vexing as I worried about them being “stretched” during the procedure.

Now that the skin on my boobs is slightly looser, I mistakenly thought that they would fit more easily between the machine’s scanning plates.

But to my surprise, the cheerfully diligent radiographer was intent on scooping whatever flesh she could, between the plates. First, I stood facing the machine, looking upwards so my chin would not be in the way and I could move as close to the machine as possible. The bottom plate was then positioned under my bosom, arranged in place by her expert hands. The top plate, which was transparent, came down tighter, tighter, yet tighter — up to a point where I felt I couldn’t breathe.

Again, the fleeting thought that my breasts would sag even more after the procedure crossed my mind. “Okay, three seconds and we’ll be done — one, two, three!” And mercifully, the plates released in a hiss. In less than 10 minutes, I was done on both sides.

Next, I moved on to my breast ultrasound, which is much like a pregnancy ultrasound. I lie on the bed with my arm above my head as a cold, water-based gel is squirted on my breast. An ultrasound wand is then run carefully across the four quadrants of the breast to check for abnormalities. The ultrasound takes around 15 minutes on each breast and the only discomfort is from the cold and sticky mess for which I’m given paper towels to wipe clean.

As it turns out, the ultrasound detected a small water cyst 4mm x 4mm x 3mm in size, in my right breast. The radiographer told me this during the ultrasound itself and when my gynae explained the mammogram results to me a few days later, he confirmed that such cysts are common, generally benign, and therefore quite harmless. Such water cysts are detected only via the ultrasound and not the mammogram itself, so I was glad I did both checks, and now know that they are both important.

This piece of news was the wake-up call I needed to jolt myself into reality. I know annual mammograms are a must for all women between age 40 and 49, and those aged 50 and above should have one done every two years.

Even though breast cancer is the top cause of cancer deaths among women, any abnormalities, if detected early with self-exams or mammograms, are usually treatable with a variety of options.

Unlike other forms of internal cancer, whose signs do not present as visibly, breast cancer can be so easily detected that it’s truly a shame we women don’t pay more attention to it than we should.

So take it from me — stop making excuses and schedule your mammogram, if you haven’t done so already. It really isn’t all that bad, and if that one hour of discomfort can save your life, it’s the only reason you need.