I won’t lie. The first time I had a mammogram, I really didn’t know what to expect. But being at high risk of developing breast cancer in my lifetime due to the fact I have BRCA1 gene mutation, then well let’s just say I am going to become very familiar with mammograms! But apart from the fact I expected it was some kind of scan, I had little idea about what happens when you have a mammogram.
Mammograms save lives
The bottom line is that mammograms save lives with breast screening saving around 1,300 lives each year in the UK. Finding cancer early can make it more likely that treatment will be successful.
Having said that, it doesn’t distract from the fact that having a mammogram is not exactly the most pleasant of experiences in my personal opinion just because it does tend to be pretty uncomfortable as your breast tissues gets pulled and manipulated into certain “flatter” positions before it gets positioned into place ready for the scan.
That said I would rather take a mammogram every day of my life rather than having a malignancy undetected in my breasts. The alternative – not knowing the status of your breast tissue and any potential changes and what they may mean, is unthinkable to me.
Do not put your mammogram off
Whatever the pain and discomfort you feel, I want to lay down now how important it is NOT to let this deter you from having your routine mammogram and attending breast cancer screening. All women are invited for a routine mammogram in the UK from age 50 up. If you have an increased risk of breast cancer due to hereditary factors then you should be having a routine mammogram annually from the age of 30 of 40.
Worries about the procedure, along with COVID disruption saw a 44 per cent fall in the number of women screened for the disease nationally in 2020-21 according to NHS England, but mammograms and early diagnosis of cancer can rapidly improve the long-term prognosis and chances of recovery.
If you are worried about having a mammogram, not sure what a mammogram is, or yet to have your first mammogram, here Kate Whittaker, Superintendent Mammographer, at King Edward VII’s Hospital explains all.
I’ve been invited to attend a mammogram. Should I go and what should I expect?
When women turn 50, they will be contacted by the NHS Breast Screening Programme Unit, inviting them for a mammogram. All patients registered as female will be contacted every three years, until they turn 71.
Mammograms are a straightforward, non-invasive short procedure, but increasingly women are missing appointments, or declining to attend their screening. Worries about the procedure, along with COVID disruption, saw a 44 per cent fall in the number of women screened for nationally in 2020-21 according to NHS England. But mammograms and early diagnosis of cancer can greatly improve a patient’s long-term prognosis and chances of recovery – so why should women attend them, and how can they prepare?
Before the appointment
As mentioned above, breast screening can save lives. Identifying and intervening early can dramatically improve the outcomes for breast cancer, but attending a mammogram is obviously a personal choice.
If you do decide to attend and feel nervous about the procedure, try to book an appointment at a time when you’re not going to be rushing around. If you feel comfortable doing so, ask a friend or loved one to take you to the appointment for moral support, and have something nice planned for afterwards that you can look forward to and distract from any worries.
When you have a mammogram, you’ll be asked to undress from the waist up, so try to wear something comfortable that’s easy to take on and off. You’ll always be imaged by a female mammographer, but if you have any queries or concerns, including mobility issues or special requirements, it’s best to contact the screening unit before your appointment. That will allow them to make any necessary changes to your appointment, such as duration or location, as some sites are remote and may not be accessible to disabled service users.
During the mammogram
When you’re ready, you’ll be invited into an x-ray room by the mammographer, who will explain the procedure and answer any questions. Your breast is imaged by gently placing it onto the x-ray machine and applying some compression. This only lasts a few seconds and releases the moment the x-ray has been taken. You’ll have four images taken in total, two on each breast. All you’ll need to do is take a few small steps in front of the machine and raise your arms when asked, to help with the breast positioning in the side images. The whole process is over very quickly, in around five minutes, but keeping still is really important to get an accurate x-ray.
Breast screening can be uncomfortable, or occasionally a little painful for some people, so talking through any concerns with the mammographer can be very useful, you can also tell them to stop at any point if you’re feeling discomfort.
Getting your results
Results will be sent to you by post and they generally take between two and four weeks. A copy will also be sent to your GP for your medical records.
Your results will either say ‘No sign of breast cancer’ or ‘Need further tests’. If you have no sign of breast cancer, you can wait for your next mammogram in three years time, unless you notice any breast changes, including any lumps in your chest or armpit, discharge from your nipple, or an unusual texture on the skin of your breast. Do a check once or twice a month, and contact your GP if you notice any changes or have any concerns about your breasts.
If you need further imaging, don’t panic. Most people who need further tests will not be diagnosed with breast cancer. But if you are worried, you can discuss the appointment with a breast care nurse, who will be able to explain to you the result, and what next steps will be taken.
You’ll be offered an appointment in a screening assessment clinic where you’ll be offered an examination of your breast and sometimes more mammograms, an ultrasound, or sometimes a needle test. Results from these tests normally take around a week. All of this will help the Breast Unit team and your GP to best support you and offer any further investigations and treatment you may require, which, in some cases, can limit the need for invasive treatment, or surgery. So when you receive your next invitation, I’d urge you to come forward and attend your mammogram, or if you notice any breast changes or symptoms in the meantime, speak to your GP to access support as early as possible, which may save.
We hope the above helps you overcome any fears you may have about attending a mammogram screening. Focus on the end game in that when you attend a mammogram, you are doing something amazing for your body and yourself, and empowering yourself with the knowledge you need about any risk factors, warning signs and potential treatment down the line. To find out more about assessing your breast cancer risk see this useful guide over at our friends Breast Cancer Now or speak to your GP.
Photos by cottonbro and Tara Winstead via pexels and National Cancer Institute on Unsplash