I don’t remember much about my grandmother’s breast cancer fight in the mid-80’s. It was before pink ribbons and 5Ks. She was in her late 60’s or early 70’s when she was diagnosed and ended up having a double mastectomy. From what we can piece together, there were lumps in one breast, so she decided to have both removed as a preventative measure.
I was in high school at the time, and I vaguely remember the discussions about her wanting to cut her hair and having to wear wigs because of chemotherapy. This was a big deal because my grandmother had long, long gray hair that went almost to her waist. She never wore her hair down, always in a bun. But in the mornings, I would watch her in a bathroom that smelled like baby powder as she combed that hair with a plastic comb, a super cheap one that was often missing several teeth from removing knots. Then she would use what seemed like a thousand bobby pins to make that bun. Her hair was never done until she donned a hair net to keep every hair in place. It was never a fashionable look, even then.
From what my brother, sister and I can remember, the doctors caught the cancer very early, and she ended up not needing chemotherapy and making a full recovery. We were lucky our breast cancer story ended there, unlike other families. My grandmother spent another 20-plus years twisting that hair into a bun and donning a hairnet every morning.
That brush with breast cancer always made my sister and I very aware of our family’s medical history. We both had our first mammograms around 35; my gynecologist called it a baseline mammogram. Now that I am over 40, mammograms are part of my yearly exams. I realize that a lot of articles talk about the need for self-exams and mammograms, but very few explain what a mammogram is like. So, as Breast Cancer Awareness Month continues, I thought I would talk about what it is like to have a mammogram. By the way, I would rank a mammogram between a teeth cleaning and a pap smear: none of them are particularly enjoyable, but it’s tolerable.
Your appointment will start with you donning one of those hospital smock tops, the ones with the ties at the sides that you can never figure out how exactly how to tie without flashing everyone. They’ll also ask you to remove your deodorant or antiperspirant with a moist towelette. You’ll wait in a small waiting area, trying not to let your top open while catching up on the Kardashians in an old In Touch magazine. A radiology technician will call your name and lead you down the hall to an exam room.
This room is slightly heated, which is nice, because that top is drafty. You’ll shrug out of one side of the top as the technician adjusts the clear plastic plates of a large, refrigerator-sized X-ray machine at your bust line. She’ll position you and then place your breast on the plate. This is the awkward part; those plastic plates will be used to compress your breast tissue so she can get a clear scan. There is a lot of pressure as they compress the breast and it can be uncomfortable to painful for a few seconds. Once the right level of compress is achieved, you will be asked to hold your breath and stand still while she takes the scan. Then the plates are released and you take a big breath and congratulate yourself for being brave.
Typically two or three scans of each breast are required. Expect it to take a few minutes between each scan to make sure the X-rays are readable, and then reposition you for the next scan. The appointment itself lasts about 20-30 minutes. Then, your test results are sent to you in a week or so.
I am not going to lie, mammograms are uncomfortable and nerve-wracking, but they are necessary. Ask your gynecologist when you should start being screened during your next appointment. Be ready to talk about your family history of breast cancer and other medical conditions.
Looking for more information on mammograms and breast health? Check out these links: