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What can you expect at your first mammogram?

| Healthy You | Wellness | Women’s Health

mammography technician helps young woman get mammogram

It might not be as bad as you think

Is fear holding you back from getting your first mammogram? Do you think it will be painful? Are you scared of what it might find?

Mammography professionals want to put a few of those fears to rest.

There are lots of reasons women might shy away from their first mammogram.

Patients say “it wasn’t that bad”

Some women find the whole physical aspect of the experience unsettling…from discomfort to the loss of a sense of modesty. Mammograms can feel uncomfortable, but they should not be painful.

“Being exposed during the exam and having your breasts touched by someone you don’t know can be the hardest part of having a mammogram,” says Gretchen Vanden Berg, RVT, RDCS, who oversees the PeaceHealth mammography clinic in Longview, Washington.

It might help to remember that the technologists do this every day, she notes. They are skilled in gently coaching women through the process and using the equipment to get good, clear images of breast and lymph tissue. “Technologists are here to help you understand the process of your exam,” says Kiki Dunbar RT (R) (M), a technologist at PeaceHealth's Kearney Breast Center in Vancouver, Washington.

After the exam is over, “we often hear patients say, ‘That was not as bad as I thought it would be,’” says Gretchen. 

Linda John, a mammography technologist at PeaceHealth in Florence, Oregon, agrees. “99 percent of the time, I will hear ‘Is that all there is to it? I can’t believe women complain about this!’”

Everyone’s experience is different

More than the physical aspect of the screening, many women find that it’s the mental side that holds them back. "Overcoming preconceived notions and fears of the unknown" are a big part of it, says Aimee Lehartel, RT (R) (M), a technologist at PeaceHealth in Vancouver.

Linda says that for some it’s “getting past the horror stories they’ve heard about mammograms.”  

“Some woman like to over exaggerate their experiences and they don’t realize the anxiety they are causing others.  For the patient getting their first mammogram, take others' stories with a grain of salt,” adds Debbie Frazier RT (R) (M), a technologist at PeaceHealth in Vancouver.

Family history or watching a loved one’s cancer journey can color someone’s view.

Some clinical studies have shown that women tend to avoid getting screened if they know someone personally who has or had breast cancer. “That is very true.  Patients will become more sensitive to the fact that cancer is real and they falsely believe that they are at a higher risk now that they know someone,” says Kiki.

“My advice is to not worry about the experiences of others,” says Gretchen.

Still, the opposite can also be true. Linda says she has seen women who had been putting off a mammogram come in immediately after someone they know has been diagnosed with breast cancer.

First mammogram saves a life

Carla Lange, a PeaceHealth caregiver who survived breast cancer, affirms that everyone’s stories are different. Her doctor recommended a baseline when she was 40 years old. “I had no family history or symptoms. It was by sheer luck, I was diagnosed by my first mammogram.” Because of her experience, she encourages all of the women in her life to get screened.

While the American Cancer Association guidelines recommend yearly mammograms beginning at age 45, statistics show that more than 15,000 women under the age of 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. “It’s important to not wait too long to get your first mammogram,” says Gretchen.

At this point, mammograms are the best means to diagnose the disease at its most curable.

“I try to remind people that mammograms actually catch things faster in an earlier stage,” says Carla. “It might be fate, genes or dumb horrible luck that you get diagnosed. You can’t control whether you have it or not, but you can control how soon you get diagnosed if you’re careful to keep up on your screenings.”

Are you ready for your first mammogram?

Here’s some advice from mammography professionals and other patients who have been in your shoes:

  • Make the appointment. If you feel that finding the time is a challenge, keep in mind that you can typically get in and out of the appointment in as little as 30 minutes. “Schedule around your menstrual cycle, when your breasts are least likely to be tender,” recommends Leslie Benton RT (R) (M), a technologist for PeaceHealth in Vancouver. In general, a good time for the screening is within 10 days of your last menstrual cycle.  If there’s any chance you’re pregnant, you’ll want to hold off on your screening until you know for sure you’re not. 
  • Remember that your experience will be unique. “Recognize your experience is going to be individual to you,” notes Kiki. Don’t let others’ stories cause you undue worry or concern. 
  • On the day of your exam,
    • wear a two-piece outfit that will make it much easier and faster to dress.
    • don’t apply any of the following in your armpit area until AFTER your scan as these can interfere with the results and give a false-positive reading. (If you forget, mammography clinics typically offer wipes to use to remove those):
      • powder.
      • perfume.
      • sunscreen.
      • lotion.
      • antiperspirant or deodorant.
    • pack a trial size roll of deodorant in your purse to use after you’re done.
    • "you can bring a friend along for support, but realize they won't be invited into the room," says Kiki.
  • Relax. While the imaging process can be uncomfortable, the new technology used today makes the process go relatively quickly. Unless the doctor orders something different, the screening usually involves taking a set of four images. For each position, you’ll hold your breath for a few seconds while the mammography unit captures your images.
  • Try to not worry. Results of mammograms are typically ready within a few days. While you’re waiting to hear yours, think good thoughts. Maybe treat yourself to something you enjoy. As one famous quote goes, “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”
  • Your first mammogram is a baseline. This is a critical way for you and your healthcare providers to get to know the make-up of your breast tissue. It sets you up for the future when new screenings can show what is or isn’t normal for you. It’s helpful to remember that some women are called back for additional imaging for a more in-depth study. “The probability of being called back for additional views after a first mammogram is increased by the sheer fact that we don’t have any comparisons,” notes Kiki. Your breast imaging is an investment in your long-term health. It could even save your life.

Learn more about breast cancer screening.