There’s nothing like getting your boobs squished between two plastic paddles to really get the blood flowing in the morning.
At 35, I am an unlikely candidate for routine mammograms. The National Cancer Institute recommends that women 40 and older get a mammogram every one to two years, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that mammogram screening begin after age 50. There has been much debate about whether the benefits of routine mammograms outweigh the risks (namely, exposure to radiation).
But, lucky me, my paternal grandmother died of breast cancer at the alarmingly young age of 36, so with that bit of information, my gynecologist gave me the option of early screening. I decided that for me, with my dense breast tissue and family history, early mammograms make sense.
I was apprehensive. To hear well-meaning older friends tell it, mammograms are unbearable events that brave women endure and only a few live to tell about. It’s a form of commiseration, this trading of mammography war stories.
But in fact, much like childbirth isn't some emergency horror show during which women clutch their impregnators and scream “YOU did this to me!!” while being rolled down a hallway on a gurney and into the delivery room STAT*, mammograms are not nearly as dramatic as some might lead you to believe.
My first mammogram (a screening mammogram) was in March, and it revealed that there were some “areas of concern,” so I was asked to go back for a second mammogram (a diagnostic mammogram). My doctor assured me that this is common, especially for younger women and first-timers. Because it was my first mammogram, there was simply no other information with which to compare the results of my screening mammogram. So, back I went.
First, they gave me this attractive hospital-gown type thing that resembles a poncho, with one jaunty snap at the neck. A tit poncho, if you will. I undressed from the waist up and put on the tit poncho and felt really stylish. I thought it went really well with my yoga pants, which I was wearing because right before the mammogram I had an ultrasound for my ovarian cyst (which I’ve named Oprah, because I never know what size it will be next) and I had to drink 32 oz. of water and then not pee for like, two hours.
The technician (let’s call her “R”), then retrieved me from the dressing room and led me to a room with the mammography machine. The machine for my screening mammogram a couple of months ago was a simpler version and included one plate on the bottom and one paddle to compress the breast tissue. The machine used for the diagnostic mammogram, however, was a bit more expensive-looking and included two interchangeable bottom plates (including a magnifying plate that looked like a small upside-down wastebasket) and several different compression paddles of various sizes. The smaller paddles are necessary to compress only specific areas of the breast that need further study (those “areas of concern.”)
During my screening mammogram, the technician put these fancy pink nipple covers on me. The nipple covers are like flowery little bandages with a plastic ball in the middle. I’m guessing the plastic thing is to show the center of the nipple on the resulting images? For my diagnostic mammogram, R didn’t have me wear these, but we did make fun of them and also she let me take some pictures.
So let’s squish some boobs.
R placed one of my breasts on the plate and moved it around a bit until it was in position for the image. I put my arm around the edge of the machine, like I was giving it a hug. (There is a groove in the side of the machine for you to hold on.) Then R lowered the paddle onto my breast, instructed me to hold my breath, and ran quickly to her monitor and keyboard to capture the image, then released the paddle right away.
Mammography technicians understand that mammograms can cause discomfort, so they work as quickly as possible. Images are taken from different angles and with different paddles. I had multiple images taken of both breasts because there were two “areas of concern” in each.
The only real pain I can say I experienced was with the smaller paddles that she used to take images of one area on the side of my breast. But that lasted only about two seconds and it was totally bearable. I experienced no pain at all with the screening mammogram, which used the one large paddle and plate.
My first thought, upon my breast being squeezed in a machine, was that some people would pay good money to have this done, on purpose (for fun!) In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a fetishist-supported black market for mammography machines.
After the breast compression, I had an ultrasound of both breasts, which was not at all scary or uncomfortable. Then I got dressed and waited nervously for the radiologist to read my results.
"Why would they have me wait here for the results if there’s not something wrong?" I thought.
And because I’m a worrier, for the next 10 minutes I imagined wild scenarios wherein they would immediately take me to another wing of the hospital for an emergency biopsy.
But that didn’t happen. Everything was normal, for the most part. I have a cluster of cysts in one breast (to go with Oprah -- a matching set, yay!) and I need to go back in six months for another breast ultrasound to make sure nothing has changed. Cysts are common and not usually a cause for concern. I’m so relieved.
*First-time births are not typically so fast, so there is no need to rush anyone down any halls on any gurneys. Just ask me about my 40-hour labor. Also, there was no screaming, OK? No screaming. Maybe some weird, guttural grunting noises, but definitely no screaming.