The SQUEEZE on Mammograms… See what I did there?!

The theme of my resolutions for 2018 is self-care and self-love. I am working hard to take care of ME so that I am better able to take care of those around me. So, when I was organizing paperwork and stumbled across the referral for a mammogram that I had asked my doctor for MONTHS ago, I decided that it was time to finally book that appointment and check it off of my hypothetical “self-care list!”

While mammograms aren’t typically performed on women under the age of forty, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at an early age so I need to start going for routine mammograms earlier. According to my family doctor, daughters of women with breast cancer should start going for routine mammograms when they are 10 years younger than their mother was at the time of diagnosis. So, since my mom was diagnosed at 40 years of age, theoretically, my sisters and I should start going for mammograms at 30 years of age. According to this math, I am 4 years behind so 2018 will be the year of my first mammogram!

To be honest, I was dreading it. But I was committed to taking the first step… calling to make the appointment. I was still nursing but trying to wean my 2 year old so I figured that if I called now, I would probably get an appointment for 6 weeks from now. I was shocked when the cheerful receptionist at the clinic asked if I would prefer a morning or afternoon appointment for tomorrow!Ahhh!

I booked the appointment and spent the rest of the day, night and next morning stressing over going for this exam. We have all heard horror stories about how your breasts get squished like pancakes and how it hurts like hell and is essentially the most awkward and awful experience to ever go through. With these fears in my mind on top of my regular anxiety and then add in the fact that I am still breastfeeding so I envision myself spraying breast milk all over the room and all over the mammographer during my exam, I found myself panicking and trying to find as much information as I could on mammograms.

This information was very difficult to come by. Sure, I could find all sorts of articles and educational materials on the mammogram itself but I was looking for real, raw experiences from survivors of the dreaded mammogram. My search was unsuccessful. Ugh. I did my best to swallow my anxiety down and get through this medical fun with the intention of sharing my entire experience with others who may be looking for the dirt on mammograms more than they are looking on the medical FAQs.

So, here’s how it went down…

When I booked my appointment over the phone, the receptionist asked if I had ever had a mammogram before. I hadn’t. The reason why this is important for your clinic to know is because if you have had a mammogram previously, they need to have access to the films from that exam so that they can compare them with your current mammogram results to look for changes. So, if you have had a mammogram before, make sure that you/your clinic have access to your films.

The receptionist told me not to wear any deodorant, perfumes or powders. I obliged but then, naturally googled it afterwards. Wearing deodorants, perfumes and powders can interfere with the quality of the images captured in your mammogram. These products can cause blurriness or shadows in your images. Stay away from them so that you get the best possible results…and, so you don’t have to repeat this lovely exam!

I was worried about being smelly for my appointment so I decided to wear deodorant in the morning but then shower right before my appointment so that I was freshly ‘undeodoranted’ and hopefully not stinky. Out of habit, I got out of the shower, dried off ant immediately applied deodorant. Dammit.

So I jumped back in and used a Norwex body cloth to exfoliate my armpits to ensure that not a trace of hindering deodorant was left behind!

You will need your health card and your referral sheet (if it wasn’t already sent through to the clinic by your doctor’s office.) Don’t forget to bring these with you!

When I arrived at the clinic, I checked in and was given a one page form to fill out. It’s pretty easy to scan the waiting room and without even trying, tell who is getting a mammogram since the form has a drawing of breasts on it where you can mark the area(s) that you have identified pain/a lump if that applies to you. The clinic did tuck the form inside a blue folder to show some discretion but once we are all packed in a tiny waiting room like sardines in a can, discretion is slightly lost.

The form asks you basic questions such as:

  • Have you had a mammogram before? If so, when?
  • Have you experienced breast pain/discomfort?
  • Is this a routine exam?
  • Have you had children?
  • How old were you when you delivered your first child?
  • Are you breastfeeding?
  • Have you had breast augmentation surgery? (Reduction, implants, etc)
  • Do you have a family history of breast cancer? If so, which family member and how old were they at time of diagnosis?
  • Are you still menstruating? If yes, what was the date of your last period?

It’s pretty straightforward. I completed the form and then sat waiting in a teeny, tiny room with a bunch of other women who were also waiting to have their boobs squeezed. Ugh.

I could feel my palms sweating out of nervousness which made me panic as I remembered that I was not wearing deodorant so I needed to STOP sweating. The waiting room was hot. There were about 8 of us crammed inside this little waiting room, in our winter gear with the furnace pumping and no deodorant in sight. Yikes.

While I was sitting there nervously not knowing what to expect, I gave myself a hypothetical slap on the wrist to snap myself out of my little self-absorbed, fear of the unknown bubble. I was sitting there waiting for my first routine mammogram. I was hoping that they wouldn’t find anything worth worrying about and that it would be the first of an annual mammogram event for me. However, there were women sitting in this small space with me who were there because they had been called back for additional images. Perhaps, their images just weren’t clear or maybe the radiologist did find something that needed immediate medical attention. Please keep this in mind when you go for your mammogram. Not everyone is there for a quick, routine, annual inconvenience. You are sharing the room with women who may have just found out that they have cancer. It’s really not a time to be making jokes about the exam. Be mindful and be sensitive.

I read through various brochures on breast exams, breast screening, breast cancer while waiting for my turn.

When my name was called, I handed my blue folder in to the technician who directed me to a change stall to take everything off from the waist up and to put on a hospital gown. Once I was changed, I was to walk in to the mammography room next door. Easy enough.

I quickly got changed behind the curtain and decided to put the gown on with the opening in the front since that was the area being investigated today. I was glad that I wore yoga pants so I was comfortable. Be sure to wear something easy to get on/off and comfortable. It’s not really the time to be wearing a dress that you can’t zip up the back of yourself or a one-piece outfit of any kind unless you want to voluntarily stand in your underwear for the exam.

I opened the heavy door to the mammography room to see a chair, a storage cabinet, a desk with 2 computers and the dreaded mammography machine. It looks like this:

While it looks a bit medieval, it’s actually a pretty advanced piece of equipment.

The technician was sensitive to the fact that it was my first time and said that while she was sure that I had heard all sorts of horror stories about this machine, that it really wasn’t so bad. This was reassuring. I told her that I had heard many stories of pain and suffering and that I was a bit nervous. She giggled and told me that I would be fine.

I figured it would be a good time to let her know that I was breastfeeding and that she and her nice little room were about to be soaked with breast milk. I was nervous that she was going to say that I couldn’t get the exam done but she said that it was fine. She told me that the pressure might cause me to express some breast milk but that it was fine. Phewwwf.

The technician asked if I was comfortable taking the hospital gown off. I said yes and removed it, placing it on the chair behind me. After delivering 3 children, I no longer have any shame. Standing in a small room with one person while topless was a walk in the park.

She explained that she would be taking pictures from 2 angles for each side. One from the front and one from the side. For the first picture, she used the foot pedal on the machine to raise the plate up to just under my breast. She asked me to place my breast on top of the clear, rectangular plate. She told me that if I experienced intolerable pain at any time during the exam to just let her know and she would release the pressure. Perfect.

She scooped my breast on to the centre of the clear plate, pulling the flesh down from my armpit as I leaned in to ensure the full breast would be in the image. There was a plate for me to place my head against and a handle to hold on to for stability. Then she started the exam and the clear plate above my breast slowly came down towards my unsuspecting boob and squished it flatter than I ever knew was possible. It was actually pretty disturbing to see just how long and flat my breast could become under pressure. The clear plates that you can see right through during the exam make it easy to be amazed at the incredible extent that your boobs can be squished. While I obviously did feel the pressure and some discomfort, I did not feel any pain. She checked the images on her computer screen and said that they were good so she released my pancake boob from between the two plates and gently lowered it off of the “stage.”

She did the same exam with my other side and the result was the same; pressure, discomfort but no real pain. Mind you, I have breastfed 3 little piranha children so it’s possible that I have a pretty decent tolerance for breast pain and discomfort. Had I had this exam before having children, my feeling might have been different.

The side exam is a bit trickier to maneuver and pose for. For my right side, I had to stand with my right arm lifted up above my head but reaching forward to hold on to the handle of the machine. My right breast leaned on an angle with the right side pressed against the angled plate. The technician told me to lean forward a bit and stick my bum out to ensure I was at the right angle. Once I was in the most perfectly awkward position I could be in, the clear plastic plate was squeezed down from the left to squish my breast flat in the opposite way (from left to right instead of from top to bottom.) I found this one to be a bit more uncomfortable than the previous one but still not awful. To be honest, I kept waiting for it to start hurting but then she would be finished.

I actually joked with the technician afterwards when she asked if I was okay, telling her that I had worn sports bras tighter than that! She laughed and said she was going to remember to share that one with other first-timers.

That was it! The entire exam took less than 10 minutes and most of that time was spent repositioning me, not just squishing my boobs. If I’m being honest, I think that sitting in a ridiculously hot,packed waiting room filled with nervous women who were all instructed to not wear deodorant was the most torturous part.

If you are due for a mammogram, make sure that you book it. While it can be weird and awkward and uncomfortable and possibly a bit painful, it is so important. Mammograms are able to detect lumps in breast tissue significantly earlier than a physical exam or self-check. And, we all know that early diagnosis is critical to successful treatment and survival. At the risk of sounding like a television commercial, I’m going to say that it can literally be the difference between life and death.

I picked up this little card that was produced by the Canadian Cancer Society while at the mammography clinic. Look at the difference in sizes of lumps upon detection!

If you are a procrastinator like me or too busy like me or too scared/nervous/anxious, etc, like me… stop now and book your mammogram! It’s truly not as bad as you think!

————–

For information on breast cancer prevention, please visit the following helpful links:

National Breast Cancer Society – How to Perform a Breast Self-Exam

Ontario Breast Screening Program

Canadian Cancer Society Mammogram Info

Canadian Cancer Society Breast Cancer Info

Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation

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