What to expect from your first mammogram

Janice Wood, a breastcare nurse with NZ Breast Cancer Foundation, reveals what to expect and offers some tips to make the experience as dignified and pain-free as possible

Before you go:
  • Book your mammogram for a time of the month when your breasts are less likely to be tender – the week after your period is best. The worst times for a mammogram are the week before and during your period.
  • If you’re having your mammogram at a private clinic, shop around! Prices can vary significantly.
  • If you’re worried it might hurt, you could take a light painkiller – such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin – an hour before your appointment.
  • Don’t wear deodorant, cream or talc; they can make the mammogram harder to read.
  • Do wear a skirt or pants, rather than a dress, as you’ll need to remove all clothing from your top half.
When you get there:
  • You’ll be asked to remove clothing and jewellery from the waist up, and offered a gown to wear.
  • Your test will be performed by a female mammographer. You’ll stand in front of the mammography machine, which has a platform for your breast that can be raised or lowered to suit your height. The mammographer will position one of your breasts on the platform, and will also position your head and arms so that the machine can get a clear view.
  • Then comes the squishing… Most women find mammograms uncomfortable, but a few women come in at either end of the spectrum – they may find the procedure painful, or the lucky ones barely feel it at all. What actually happens is that a plastic plate spreads your breast flatter, evening out the breast tissue and holding it still so the machine can get a good picture with a low-dose x-ray.
  • The mammographer will move away and you’ll be asked to hold your breath for a couple of seconds while the images are taken.
  • The process will then be repeated with the other breast. The whole procedure takes about 20 minutes.
What happens next?
  • The mammographer will ask you to wait a few minutes while she checks the images have come out clearly. If not, she may need to repeat one or more of them.
  • If you have your mammogram through BreastScreen Aotearoa – New Zealand’s free national breast screening programme for women aged between 45 and 69 – the images will be viewed later by a radiologist. The results will be sent to you within two weeks, and also to your GP if you’ve given permission. If your mammogram is at a private clinic, a radiologist will view the images while you’re getting dressed, and you’ll be given the results on the spot.
  • Around 4 per cent of women are told they need further investigation as a result of their mammogram. The next step could be another mammogram, an ultrasound, or a biopsy. Nine out of 10 times, it turns out not to be cancer, but in those rare cases where it is, catching it early means a better chance of survival and can also mean less drastic treatment.
  • If you notice any changes in the look or feel of your breasts between mammograms, even if your last mammogram was recent, talk to your GP as soon as possible.
The NZ Breast Cancer Foundation recommends women consider:
  • Annual mammograms from age: 40-49
  • Then every two years from age 50-70
  • Free two-yearly mammograms are available from BreastScreen Aotearoa for women aged 45-69
Photos: Thinkstock and Alamy.

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