After starting your period, an annual mammogram feels like the second-most universal coming-of-age health milestone for a woman.
Almost all of my friends have lamented the arrival of their 40th birthday and the scheduling and participation in their first mammogram. According to the National Cancer Institute, mammograms can be used to check for breast cancer in women who have no signs or symptoms of the disease. This type of mammogram is called a screening mammogram. Screening mammograms usually involve two x-ray pictures, or images, of each breast. The x-ray images make it possible to detect tumors that cannot be felt. Screening mammograms can also find microcalcifications (tiny deposits of calcium) that sometimes indicate the presence of breast cancer.
I delayed scheduling my mammogram for as long as possible. I didn’t want to schedule it, have it done or await the results. But, I also knew that just because I didn’t want to do something, didn’t mean that I shouldn’t do it. I know that it’s an important milestone and one I need to bravely take on, so I scheduled my appointment.
I scheduled my appointment for 6:00 am, because you’re not allowed to wear deodorant or antiperspirant to the appointment. During the appointment, (as I was apologizing for possibly stinking) the technician explained that they many contain substances that can show up on the x-ray as white spots. The facility I went to had a dressing room and lockers. It was very private and had a spacious enough changing area for you to bring deodorant or perfumes if you had plans immediately following your exam.
I was very nervous when I arrived at the appointment, but my technologist was a champ and walked me through everything she did. She explained what she was going to do, and warned me when the procedure might hurt.
After I changed into the hospital gown the appointment began. I wore jeans and a button down shirt to the exam. While I normally wear dresses, I knew it would probably be too cold in the exam room to only wear a hospital gown, and the exam needs to take place topless. I suggest wearing a skirt or pants. Then you’ll only need to remove your top and bra for the mammogram technician.
First the technician will place each of your breasts in the machine for the mammogram. In order to get a high-quality picture, your breast must be flattened. Your technician will position your breasts for the mammogram. You and the technologist are the only ones in the room during the mammogram, and chances are, it will only take seconds for you to forget your modesty and do everything you can to cooperate and make the appointment go quickly and smoothly. The downside of the appointment is what all of us dread: to get a high-quality picture, your breast must be flattened (fortunately, this part only lasts a few seconds).
When the exam starts, the technologist will place your breast on the machine’s plate. The plastic upper plate is lowered to compress your breast for a few seconds while the technologist takes a picture. This process worked well on my left breast. On my right breast: not-so-much. We had to compress my right breast three times. But, still. The third time was a charm.
The whole procedure takes about 20 minutes. Two views of each breast are taken for a screening mammogram. But for some women, more pictures may be needed. If this happens to you, don’t freak out. My technician told me that this is very normal. And if you’re freaking out, let your technician know. They’ll reassure you. I promise.
It turns out, the worst part of the whole entire thing wasn’t the breast compression. It was the 10-day wait to get my test results. The most disappointing thing about enduring the exam, was having to patiently wait (and quiet all of the voices in my head) as I awaited test results from my doctor.
In the United States, federal law requires mammogram facilities to send you your results within 30 days, but you can usually expect to receive your results sooner. I’m not sure I could have made it 30 days. Ten days was torture enough.
During the 10- day wait I Googled, “what are signs of breast cancer?” because, why not try to diagnose myself while waiting? I learned that aside from a lump, signs of breast cancer can include breast pain, thickening of the skin of the breast, nipple discharge, or a change in breast size or shape. Obviously Google suggested a mammogram and the consultation of a real doctor. I was pleased when I received a letter in the mail, on or around 10 days following my exam to let me know that my mammogram showed nothing irregular.
Opinions about when to get your first mammogram, and how often you should have them vary widely. My doctor has asked me to have an annual mammogram, beginning at age 40. Some people feel you can switch to bi-annually beginning at age 54–but that varies by physician.