By Felecia Sumner, D.O., Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Physician
It’s that time again. You’ve finally made the leap to see your OB/GYN or family medicine doctor for your annual checkup.
After addressing your cold symptoms, and making sure your blood pressure looks good, your doctor approaches the subject you’ve been dreading since you stepped in. “You’re 43 years old,” the doctor says, “and it looks like you haven’t had a mammogram yet. Why’s that?” As you think about the many reasons why you’ve been avoiding this conversation, you clam up. Considering the cost and the time you don’t have, unfortunately, a mammogram is very low on the priority list.
The question is, however, should it be? I’ve always believed that it’s tough to make the right decisions without being educated on the subject. So, let’s cover a few basic points about the screening mammogram. After reading this article I hope you’ll agree that a mammogram is worth being much higher on your list.
A mammogram is a low-dose X-ray exam of the breast that looks for abnormal findings. The largest concern is breast cancer. I’ve often heard that some women are concerned about the amount of radiation from mammograms, and have therefore opted against them. It is important to know that the radiation from this exam is minimal. Many health facilities, such as Crozer-Keystone’s, now use digital mammography technology— which provides better testing with even less radiation.
Mammograms are performed by standing in front of a special X-ray machine. A technician then places your breasts, one at a time, between an X-ray plate and a plastic plate. These plates are attached to the X-ray machine and compress the breasts to flatten them. This is particularly the point where you may feel some discomfort, because compressing the breast tissue allows the doctor to obtain a clearer picture. Please keep in mind that this feeling only lasts for a few seconds. The flatter your breast, the better the picture. I’m aware that the fear of pain is a reason why a lot of women don’t want to get their mammograms done. It is true that they can be painful, but I can assure you that the pain of the test is far less than the discomfort, pain and sickness that can accompany treatment if you’re found to have breast cancer when it’s too late.
A mammogram is able to show any lumps or calcifications. Lumps can be characterized by their size, shape and edges, which helps your doctor determine if it has potential to be cancerous or if it is likely benign (non-cancerous). Calcifications are deposits of calcium in the breast tissue and can show up as white spots on a mammogram. Most of them are from aging/maturing. Occasionally, if they are grouped a certain way, they could be a sign of cancer. Your doctor can make a decision about any further tests depending on what they look like. The good news is that calcium in your diet does not create these deposits.
If your screening mammogram does show an abnormality, the doctor reading the image and your family doctor or OB/GYN may suggest another test. Examples include a diagnostic mammogram (which is similar to a screening mammogram but more images, so it takes longer), an ultrasound, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or a biopsy.
To ensure that your mammogram is as stress-free as possible, consider the following recommendations to prepare:
- If you’re still having menstrual periods, try to schedule your test 10-14 days after the start of your cycle. Your breasts will be much less swollen and tender.
- Try to avoid caffeine one week before your mammogram. It can make the breasts more tender.
- If you have breast implants, tell the facility when you make your appointment. Sometimes implants can hide certain breast tissue. If they know ahead of time, this can ensure that they obtain the right angles for a complete picture.
- Wear a shirt with pants, shorts or a skirt. This way, you can undress from the waist up and leave your bottoms on when you get the mammogram.
- Don’t wear any deodorant, perfume, lotion or powder under your arms or on your breasts on the day of your appointment. These can sometimes cause a shadow.
- If you’ve had mammograms done at another facility, try to have those films sent to your new facility so they can be used for comparison.
The bottom line is: Mammograms save lives. The process from check-in to check-out takes less than 30 minutes. They are the best and most cost-effective tool for early detection of breast problems out there.
If your funds are limited, or you’re uninsured, please don’t let that be a hindrance for you. The Healthy Woman Project provides free exams for women 50-64 years old. You can call (610) 284-8112 for more information.
The American Cancer Society recommends getting an annual mammogram starting at age 40. You may even have to start earlier if you have a family history or other risk factors. Discuss your concerns with your doctor. It’s worth saving your life.