My First Mammogram: Do's and Don'ts
Last week I went to my doctor's office for that rite of passage known as "My First Mammogram." I approached the process warily, thinking about the horror stories I had heard: sensitive breasts flattened between cold metal plates; brusque nurses poking and prodding naked flesh. I am happy to say that the process was simple and straightforward for me, and I really did suffer only "minor discomfort." Don't be afraid of making an appointment for your first mammogram; here are some do's and don'ts and what to expect.
Do: Get Your First Mammogram at the Right Age
Guidelines published by the American Cancer Society recommend getting your first mammogram at age 40. DON'T be a sucker like me and believe the nurse on the phone who says, "You're how old already? Thirty-five? Come on down!" Younger breasts are denser, and therefore have to be squashed more to get a good picture. Ow.
(On the other hand, if you are at high risk of developing breast cancer, for example if your mom had it, or you have the breast cancer genes, you may want to get your first mammogram early; 35 may be totally appropriate for you. Ask your doctor.)
Don't: Wear Deodorant to Your Appointment
The ingredients in some deodorants (and lotion and powder, too) can interfere with the picture and cause shadows. (Although frankly, I don't know any woman who deodorizes her breasts; my deodorant stays firmly in my armpits, where it belongs!)
DO try to schedule your mammogram in the morning, so you don't have to stay stinky all day!
Do: Wear a Shirt
As opposed to a dress! Otherwise, you'll have to get totally naked, when being half-naked will suffice. The nurse will give you a hospital gown or wrap to wear open in the front as you parade through the office to the mammogram room, which hopefully will be only a short walk. (The undressing room in my doctor's office is only about three steps from the mammogram room, but I am a large-size person wearing an average-sized gown. My dignity was somewhat compromised by having to cross my arms over my unfettered breasts and desperately try to make ends meet, as it were!) DON'T be afraid to ask for a larger gown if you need it, or take two—one to wear open in front, and another to wear open in the back that you'll take off entirely when you reach the privacy of the room.
Do: Be Prepared for What Will Happen
I had heard the stories from my mother and older friends about their breasts being pancaked on a flat plane. What I didn't know, however, was that they also take a picture of the breast on an inclined plane, which means that you have to lean over the machine and steady yourself by ramming your (deodorant-less) armpit against the corner of the platter on which your breast is resting. Then the technician will arrange your breast and quickly press down the top plate, holding your breast in a vise grip while she takes the picture. The "breasts on a platter" position didn't hurt in the slightest; the "breast in a vise grip" position makes me ache just to think about it, and it was a week ago already.
Don't: Breathe When the Machine Is in Action
According to the technician at my appointment, if you breathe while the X-ray is being taken, they have to take another picture. I understand that this is because it is the nature of breasts to jiggle when one breathes. I didn't want to have to stand there with my breast on a platter any longer than necessary, so I took a deep breath and held it. This also helped with the pain when the machine turned at an angle. At least, it spared the tech and all the patients in the waiting room from having to hear me shout curses!
Do: Relax (as Much as You Can)
Unless you have reason to be suspicious, your first mammogram is simply a baseline measurement against which they can measure future mammograms for changes. The chances that the doctor will find some hidden horror are very slim. According to the American Cancer Society, only two to four out of 1,000 screening mammograms find cancer, and that includes every annual mammogram for women from 40 on. So although you will be uncomfortable while standing half-naked in a room with a stranger who is positioning your breasts between glass plates and then smushing them, there is no need to worry. You're young, and time is on your side.
Plus, if you tense up, your breasts will jiggle. And we all know what happens when your breasts start to jiggle during the picture-taking process!