OK, so I recently got my first mammogram and understandably, I was a bit anxious about getting my tits clamped in one of those machines so I thought I'd share my experience.
When I turned 38, my gynecologist suggested that I get a baseline mammogram. That basically means one that they would have on file for future reference when i started getting screened annually. Now I had heard a lot of horror stories about how they "squeeze so tight it feels like your boobs are going to explode" so naturally I felt a bit apprehensive about it but I eventually said "oh well It's just one of those things you have to do". So I scheduled the appointment and they told me not to wear any deodorant because it could interfere with the image. The day of the appointment I arrived at the facility and they gave me a survey where they asked about my family history of breast cancer, any symptoms I noticed and whether or not I had any surgeries on or around my breasts. Then I saw one woman walking out and she was grimacing and rubbing her nipples. I thought "huh, that's strange"? Then my name was called and a technologist lead me to a room in the back. She introduced herself as "Maggie" and then she explained what the procedure was going to be like and why the most dreaded part (the boob squeezing) was necessary. Basically they're trying to image a 3D structure on a 2D image so when all the tissue is spread out, they can get a much clearer image. Well I guess that was some consolation. She also gave me a few tips which I'll talk about later.
She then told me to take my top and bra off and tie my hair back. What came next was completely unexpected: she got a pair of stickers with little metal balls in the middle and put them on my nipples. Apparently the metal ball shows where they are on the x-ray. She then told me to come close to the machine for the top down ("CC") views, lifted my breast as high is it would go and raised the cassette plate. Then she turned my head toward her, pushed me as close to the front of the machine as I could get and using both hands, pulled my boob as far forward as she could. I was expecting to the squish but having your breast pulled away from your chest wall like that is such a weird sensation. Next she held it down onto the plate with one hand and pushed me closer in with the other and said now I'm going to apply compression *gulp. The squish came in 3 phases:
-first she brought the plate down while moving her hand forward getting my boob as far out as it would go.
-second she put her finger on metal ball on the nipple sticker (and said it was to make sure the nipple was pointed forward) and tapped the pedal, increasing pressure with every tap.
-third she turned the knobs on the side of the paddle, poking my breast after every turn (making sure the skin was taught).
Not only did I feel a lot of pressure but my nipple was trying to stick out, causing the sticker to pull on my areola. Then she said OK, now I'm going to take the image. She walked behind a glass shield. The machine started whirring and she said "hold your breath" but then the machine started beeping which made me jump a little. Then when the image was done the paddle released and (contrary to what some have said about it causing sagging) my boob popped right back into shape. But when looking at the image she said the metal ball was a bit blurry because I twitched so we had to do a re-take of the first one. So we did and then did the same thing for the other breast.
Next came the side (MLO) pictures. She rotated the machine 45 degrees and had me hold onto the side handle so my arm was right across the side of the cassette and the edge of my pec was right against the front. Then Maggie stood behind me, pushed me toward the machine with one hand and again pulled my breast as far forward as it could go and while holding it against the cassette, brought down the paddle (pretty much the same way as for the top down views). She told me to hold my non-squished boob out of the way and went to take the picture. We repeated the same thing for my left breast and then we were done.
I said "that's it"? And she replied "yep". So as for how it felt, well there's no two ways about it: it was uncomfortable having the girls pressed flat like that. Also there were some other "unpleasantries" like how cold the plates were and how tight the skin on your chest gets (not to mention that having your boobs pulled away from your chest is such a weird sensation). But it was completely tolerable and if I had to compare how hard they squeeze to anything; I would say it was like getting my blood pressure taken. My tech explained that it's the flatter the breast the better the picture but adding more pressure past the point where the skin is tight won't make it any flatter, it will just hurt the patient. So ladies, bottom line: if it hurts, the tech is squeezing too hard but if there's no discomfort, then you should be really worried that they won't get a good image (i.e. they can miss something). So I was about to put my bra back on and my tech said "remember to take the stickers off". Feeling a bit of "euphoria" about being done with something that had been causing me a lot of anxiety, I pulled both them off but then I made a silent scream in agony. Well now I know why that woman in the waiting room was grimacing while rubbing her nipples :S
Well on to some pointers she gave me for future reference:
1: Get a 3D mammogram. Those are a lot more accurate.
2: Schedule your appointment the week after your period (when your breasts are less tender)
3: See if any facilities use nipple markers. They help a lot when it comes to analyzing the X-rays (but if you do, make sure you can schedule the appointment for a time when you can shower right afterwards).
4: Check your breasts the night before. That way the tech can make note of anything suspicious.
5: Do some stretches the morning of the appointment. The side pictures require that you bend your torso quite a bit so having an extra little bit of flexibility helps.
6: Don't be afraid of the radiation: It takes 1 Sv of radiation to increase the risk of cancer by 5.5% and a mammogram only gives .0004 Sv so if you get 40 mammograms throughout your life, it will only increase the risk of breast cancer by less than .1%.
7: Don't be embarrassed: OK, it's one thing to have your boobs out in front of a stranger, it's another thing to have her touching them but to have her press them in a machine...
...well that seems downright intrusive. But remember when the mammotech is seeing you, she's probably already handled a dozen other knockers that day so there's no reason to feel embarrassed of self conscious.
8: Relax: OK, I get the thought of having a sensitive part of your body pressed between two plates can be a bit unnerving (let alone the possibility that they might find something). But worrying that it's going to hurt can be a self fulfilling prophecy. If you worry too much, you can't relax. If you can't relax, you tense up and your chest muscles pull on your breast tissue causing additional strain which can cause pain instead of discomfort. One way that helped me relax was to take deep breaths BUT I took them through my stomach so my chest stayed still. Also, the tension might mean part of the breast is not included in the image; a part that may have a cancerous growth. So relax like your life depends on it...
...because it does!
9. No sudden movements: I can be a bit of a spaz which is why the tech had to re-take the first image. So don't jump when the machine starts whirring or beeping otherwise the movement will blur the image. Also, don't instantly back away when the plate releases. Yeah I know we're all eager to get our boobs out of the vice but if you pull away to sudden it can cause skin tears on your inframammary fold.
10. Show your technologist some appreciation: Not gonna lie there's a lot of pressure (pun totally intended) on the technologists because if they mess up an image and a tumor is missed, it can cost the dearly. So when the mammotech is holding your breast in your hand she's also holding your life as well.
11. Don't freak out if you get a callback: Most of the time you get a call back the object of concern isn't cancerous. Also, know what it means if you have dense breast tissue.
12: If you have implants, expect some extra views: OK, I've been considering getting implants but my technologist told me that if I do, they'll have to take 2 versions of the CC and the MLO views: one with the implant included and the other with it pushed back.
13. Remember: mammograming your boobs is more important than instagraming them.
And as a side note I felt a little extra compelled to make this take because my daughter just started attending community college to pursue a career in radiology. I'm so proud of her <3