Trent Ernst, Editor
A couple years ago, Colette passed that magic line known as “Lordy Lordy Look who’s forty”. Which means she is now at the age where the BC Cancer Society recommends women start having mammograms.
As women age, the chance of developing breast cancer increases, with 80 percent of new cases happen in women over 50, so common wisdom is to start getting mammograms annually or biannually at age 40.
Mammograms are famed in song and story as being about the most unpleasant medical procedure women have to endure. This is not something that I, lacking the proper accoutrements, can verify, so my lovely and brave wife volunteered to undergo the procedure, in the interests of journalistic pursuits.
A mammogram is an x-ray picture of the breast. According to the BC Cancer Agency, these are done “in complete privacy by a specially-trained female technologist.”
The annual or biannual mammogram is a “screening” mammogram. It consists of four images (two of each breast) that look for hidden cancer in women who are healthy (no symptoms) and have never had breast cancer. For women who have experienced possible symptoms of cancer, a “diagnostic” mammogram involves additional images from several angles.
To prepare for the mammogram, Colette was asked not to wear any sort of deodorant, powder, creams or lotions that day. According to the BC Cancer Agency website, “these products leave a residue that can make it difficult to read your mammogram.” Perfume is also verboten, just in case anyone (the nurses, patients after you) has environmental allergies.
It was recommended that she wear a two piece outfit with a top that opened in the front, which she could also use in lieu of a gown. “Most centres,” says the website, “do not provide gowns in an effort to be environmentally responsible.” This was true of the mobile unit that came to Tumbler Ridge.
“Because I was a first-timer,” says Colette, “they explained everything that they were going to do, and at the end, they said, I might get a call back and have to go into Dawson, but not to worry about that. First timers often get called in again, since they don’t have a previous mammogram to compare it to.”
During a screening mammogram, says the BC Cancer Agency website, a female technologist will place your breast on a special x-ray machine. “A plastic plate will be pressed down slowly to flatten your breast and hold it in place for a few seconds. You will feel some pressure on your breast for a few seconds during the X-ray. Compression is necessary to spread the breast tissue and eliminate motion, which may blur the picture.”
This is the part famed in song and story, and has a reputation of being painful. Colette says this might have been oversold just a bit.
The mammogram is done standing up. The technician adjusts the machine to your height. Once everything is ready to go, the technician starts to lower the top part. “They want to be able to see everything from the armpit lymph nodes all the way down,” says Colette. “It’s not the most comfortable, but it’s not really painful. It’s a slow process, and the technician gives you a chance to say stop if it becomes too uncomfortable.”
Which it wasn’t. Instead, Colette describes it as “a little bit squishy,” though she says that “perkier” women might have more problems. “You have to stand just so to get everything in between the two plates.” Once everything is in place, the plates are compressed, but not so much as to turn things to pancakes.
However, as with all medical procedures, each person will react differently. One person I know says she’s reduced to tears every time she has to have a mammogram. Pain levels will vary depending on time of month, psychological conditions, expertise of the technician and a variety of other factors.
While it can take a couple minutes to set up each X-ray, the actual process only takes about ten seconds, so even if you do find it more uncomfortable, it is a fairly quick procedure. “It took about ten minutes, and that includes filling out the forms,” says Colette.
“I can’t speak for anyone else, but it’s no more an invasion of privacy than most trips to the doctor, and probably slightly more pleasant than some,” says Colette. “I’ve had two children; I’ve had gall stones, and I’ve stubbed my toe. All of which were more painful than this procedure.”