A mammogram is a picture of the breast taken via an x-ray machine. For those not familiar with the procedure, a woman’s breast is flattened and wedged between a hard-plastic shield and a slab of cold metal. It’s not the intent to make light of such a widely debated preventive procedure for detecting breast cancer; however, if you have ever gone through the process, I’m sure you can at least relate to the awful pressure felt from turning your breast into a pancake. One might think the size of the breast dictates how much or little it hurts. This is not the case. I’ve spoken with friends wearing A and B cup bras and they too speak of the excruciating pain from a mammogram.
Mammograms though painful are useful. The two types of mammograms are screening and diagnostic. Screening procedures are used to check for breast cancer when one is free of signs or symptoms indicating disease. Screening mammograms increase the ability to detect tumors or growths that cannot be seen or felt. The diagnostic procedure occurs after lump detection or other symptoms such as discharge from the nipple, sore breasts (beyond what is present during the menstrual cycle), or change in breast shape or size. Conversely, having the symptoms mentioned are not automatic indicators of breast cancer. Sometimes, the symptoms are benign and cause more worry than physical harm.
The history of breast cancer in my immediate family makes me a high-risk candidate to contract the disease. Since the age of thirty-five I've endured yearly mammograms. No matter how familiar I am with the procedure, I still get nervous twinges weeks leading up to my appointment. In my head, I play out every possible scenario from noting being wrong to everything imaginable going wrong. Immediately after the procedure the twinges increase in anticipation of the results. For the past five years or so, I've always had to endure a second (diagnostic) procedure after the images taken during the screening mammogram showed some possible changes in one and sometimes both of my breasts. The diagnostic procedure took longer and exposed me to higher doses of radiation, due to the number of images needed to confirm or rule out what was visible on the screening images.
While this article is not intended to diagnose, treat or indicate in any way that your experience will be the same as what I've experienced; this is an attempt to build awareness. The American Cancer Society recommends routine screening every two years for women fifty to seventy-four; however, if there is a history of breast cancer in your family, don’t wait. Speak with your gynecologist regarding routine screening and follow-up. It’s never too early to be informed.