Mammograms – what to expect and the importance of being proactive

Throughout the month of October, I’ve been researching and learning a lot about breast cancer, about risks, prevention tips, and detection tools. About how an early diagnosis can help save your life or the life of a woman you love. Working on a video testimonial reinforced that; Dr. Denice Logan and BCN member and breast cancer survivor Diane Watson both spoke to the importance of regular mammograms and self exams.

The research, the blogs and the video have all contributed to me making an appointment I’ve been putting off. Sounds paradoxical, but the older I get, the more fearful I am of going to the doctors; with age comes a more refined perspective of mortality and the idea of receiving terrible news can paralyze one. Can anyone else relate to this?

So, to assuage my own fears, and perhaps help quell yours, I’d like to share some info on mammograms, what they are, what to expect during and after the exam and the role mammograms play in early detection.

What is a mammogram and what to expect

The Centers for Disease Control offers some invaluable information regarding mammograms. These x-rays can help detect growths up to three years before they can be felt. A screening mammogram can help detect breast cancer in women who exhibit no signs or symptoms. Normally, two x-rays of each breast are taken and can reveal tumors that are too small to be felt during a normal self exam.

When calling to make your appointment or upon your visit to your doctor’s office, keep these questions in mind and pose appropriately:

  • What’s involved in a mammogram?
  • How much time should I plan to spend at the doctor’s office?
  • What about previous mammograms?
  • When will the results be available?
  • When will I need to schedule my next mammogram?

The day of your exam, please dress comfortably; you’ll need to undress from the waist up for the mammogram so you may want to wear a skirt, pants and top as opposed to a dress. Also, don’t use deodorant, powder or perfume as these have been known to cause white spots on the x-ray.

Once you’ve made it to the doctor’s office, signed in, anxiously flipped through the magazines in the waiting room and are called back for your exam, you’ll be asked to put on an exam gown, then led to special x-ray machine. One by one, your bare breasts will be placed by a tech on a clear plate. Then, another plate will lower from above, flattening your breast and securely holding it in place while the x-ray is being performed.

I’ve read that it’s not fun. It isn’t comfortable. Painful in some cases even. I will present no illusion on that front, but the discomfort is only temporary and the knowledge gleaned as a result of this test can be life saving.

After the exam

You’ll more than likely get your results back in a few weeks, after the radiologist has reviewed and shared the findings (or hopefully lack thereof) with your doctor. If there are areas of concern, chances are you’ll hear back from your doctor’s office sooner rather than later. If you haven’t heard from your doctor within 30 days, give them a call to inquire as to your results.

Hopefully, when you get the results, everything will be normal. Get your regular exams as scheduled. However, if your exam comes back with abnormalities, try not to panic. Truth be told, I would be alarmed immediately, though I would have to remind myself that abnormal results do not necessarily mean cancer. What it does mean is that additional exams will be needed along with a trip to see a breast specialist.

How mammograms have impacted survival rates

Mammograms play a major role in improving the survival rates of women between the ages of 40 and 70. A study released earlier this year found that women who were diagnosed with breast cancer through mammography ‘were easier to treat, had less recurring disease and fewer died from the disease.’ On top of that, earlier detection through mammography may be the difference between having to endure chemotherapy and mastectomy versus removing only the cancerous tissue through a lumpectomy.

Our awareness of breast cancer must inspire action. Call your doctor today to make an appointment.

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