At the urging of my colleague Abel, who liveblogged his own vasectomy, I’m documenting my first mammogram. Given that I had pretty much no idea what to expect going into this, I’m hopeful that this post will demystify the experience a little for those who know they probably should get mammograms but have been putting it off.
Let me preface this by saying that there was no special reason that my primary care physician ordered a mammogram for me aside from my being 40. As such, there’s no special cause to be worried for my health as I wait for the results.
Beginning of the month
Had my first regular check-up with my new primary care physician, who ordered the mammogram. The “patient instructions” sheet I was given at the end of this appointment devoted four pages to a discussion of screening mammograms.
None of these pages said anything about what the actual procedure is like for the patient.
What I have heard in passing about other people’s mammograms ranges from “uncomfortable” to “painful”. My previous first-hand experiences with medical imaging include ultra-sound (the twin joys of a full bladder and a goopy belly) and MRI (where, in my own experience, one is offered music to listen to during one’s time in the tube if one has “grown-up” insurance but gets to listen to the banging sound of the imaging if one is on the student insurance).
I finally get around to calling radiology to schedule my mammogram. They have an available slot the next morning. Sure.
For the first time ever, I am asked (albeit over the phone) whether I have breast implants. Nope.
I am instructed not to wear antiperspirant to the appointment. I decide this rules out my biking the five miles to the appointment (since I’m also supposed to make sure my breasts and armpits have been washed before this appointment — a brisk bike ride tends to undo that).
Drying off after my shower, I have to stop myself from opening the medicine cabinet and putting on the antiperspirant — not once, but three times.
Drive to the appointment.
At the Radiology reception area, I’m given a clipboard with a one page questionnaire about my relevant health history. Previous mammograms? Nope. Surgical history with respect to my breasts? None. (Implants? Not since I made the appointment yesterday afternoon.) Hormonal medications? No. Previous cancers or cancer in my family? No. Pregnant now or breastfeeding within the last three months? Nope.
Of course, there’s the obligatory box to initial to indicate that the mammogram uses ionizing radiation. Sure. My previous experiences with ionizing radiation have not been painful.
Pretty much as soon as I finish the questionnaire, my name is called. The radiology technician takes the form and leads me to the room. About the size of a regular exam room, but the lighting is nicer. No fluorescents blazing down from the ceiling (although it takes me a few moments to figure that out). The room has a chair, a computer station with a largish flat screen (pointed toward the middle of the room, so I don’t see what’s on the screen), and a sleek, squarish, harmless looking piece of equipment … the instrument of my breasts’ inquisition.
The radiology technician is really friendly … and, it turns out, married to someone I know from work. “But don’t worry! We don’t talk about who I saw for a mammogram.”
Technician looks at my questionnaire and asks whether I have breast implants. (The answer is still no.) The form I filled out was redesigned very recently, so that information isn’t in the place where she was expecting it to be. We spend a few moments considering how the design of forms drives all manner of human activities.
Hearing that this is my first time getting a mammogram, she reassures me. “You’ll tell me how you’re doing and we’ll work together to get good pictures.”
I’m asked to strip from the waist up. There is no messing with the usual paper gown, as apparently even that would show up in the imaging and make the results harder to interpret.
Escorted to the sleek squarish device and told we’re taking four pictures today. Right breast resting on the ledge of the imaging device, right hand holding a handle designed to keep the right arm out of the way. Had to be gently reminded to let my left arm dangle at my side rather than wrapping it around the imaging device.
Then the glass plate descends and commences the squashing of my breast.
This is not the familiar, boa constrictor-tight embrace of the blood pressure cuff. This is squashing. Ooof.
“Try not to move.” Why does this request make me twitchy every single time I hear it? Luckily, the actual imaging takes less than a minute. As predicted, I don’t feel the ionizing radiation. The vise-grip of the apparatus keeps my right breast from moving, apparently, as the first image is deemed acceptable.
On to the same view of the left breast. This time the squashing is not unexpected. Also, our conversation about the gardening sunburn on my back distracts me from the discomfort on the front side. (Talking about the sunburn also makes me notice that it still hurts, something I hadn’t been actively noticing, but the pain on my back is my own damn fault.) Still an oof, but not quite the full-on Ooof of the first shot.
Image 2 looks acceptable. On to the next shot.
For the third picture, we’re back to my right breast. The machine is rotated so that the “ledge” is now perpendicular to the floor. After my right arm is positioned out of the way, the plate closes to squash my breast vertically and give a “side view”. I had occasion to notice, as the plates were being tightened, a convenient digital display of the number of centimeters to which my breast tissue was being squashed (around 5) and the number of Newtons (or pounds) of force being applied in the squashing — that number was around 25, but I don’t know to which units the display had been set, so it’s not a terribly meaningful number to me.
Image 3 looks OK, so on to the side view of the left breast.
As my left breast is being squashed vertically, the digital display is not in my line of sight. I think maybe I find the up-and-down squashing more uncomfortable than the side-to-side squashing. However, it may just be that the technician has diverted my attention from the Ooof with our discussion of the presidential transition at my campus.
The fourth image looks OK.
The radiology technician says I’ll hear from my primary care physician with the results in about a week. She wishes me luck with my sabbatical.
Total time in the exam room: 11 minutes.
Number of times in the past 24 hours I’ve been asked whether I have breast implants: 3.
Breasts: a little sore.