Recently, during my annual gynecology examination, my brand new (to me) OB decided that I should go for my first mammogram. It was quite the experience from start to finish and I have learned several things that I wish I had known going into it. I’m going to share my experience with you just in case any of this could help you one day.
With COVID, let’s be honest, I was a little late in getting my annual examination. On top of that, my original OB had moved to another practice, so I was walking into a brand new person. However, with my complicated pregnancies and baby-making in general behind me, I honestly did not expect anything serious to pop up. I was looking forward to returning to the perfunctory check up, see you in a year situation. And yet, this check up would not go that way.
After discussing my family history and doing the breast examination, my doctor decided that it was time for my first mammogram. And that brings me to the first thing you should know about mammograms. While the American Cancer Society states that women of average risk are recommended to start mammograms as earlier as age 40, your family history or clinical exam could necessitate that you start testing at an earlier age.
#1: While the American Cancer Society recommends mammograms begin as early as 40, your family history or clinical exam could mean you start at an earlier age.
I was quite surprised at the recommendation because I am a few years from 40, but I felt like I was being sent just out of an abundance of caution. In hindsight, I think he may have felt something suspicious and wanted to have it checked out. So, I made the appointment and went in. That brings me to the second thing you should know about your first mammogram.
#2: Do not wear deodorant or lotion on the day of your mammogram.
Things like deodorant or lotion can read on the mammogram as lesions or spots that when nothing is actually there. It may be helpful to schedule the appointment for the morning and bring your deodorant with you if you’re not going back home. Similarly, make sure you note all moles in the general area, because they can show up as false positives as well.
Now, I was super nervous, not because I was worried they would find anything, but because I had heard that it was very painful. Of course, I’ve only heard that from older women in my life, whose doctors may have been using older technology. When the tech asked me if I knew anything about the process, the only thing I said was that it hurts a lot. She laughed and said that’s usually what first-timers say. She told me, however, that with today’s digital technology, they no longer have to squish and squeeze so hard. She said, for the most part, if it hurts, they’re doing it wrong. And in fact, mine did not hurt one bit. It look just a few minutes and I was on my way.
#3: Digital technology has made it so that mammograms are not as painful as the used to be.
After we finished, the tech told me that since it was my first mammogram, and the radiologists did not have anything to compare my results with to look for changes, it was not uncommon to be called back in for better images.
#4: It is common to be called back in after your first mammogram to get more or better images. This does not necessarily mean that the test detected anything the first time.
This was news to me, but I was grateful for the information so if I received the call to come back in, I would know that it was totally normal. More on what happened with me in a minute.
The mammogram lasted just a few minutes and then I was on my way. In the dressing room, there was a sign about 3D mammograms and I had not heard of such a thing. The sign explained that some insurance companies cover 3D mammograms, that they produce better images, and that the patient need only request a 3D mammogram before the test begins. Now, this may be the case just for the facility I was in. However, I decided to go back and do some research. Sure enough, I found that 3D mammograms do often provide better images and that my insurance company would have, in fact, covered the 3D mammogram.
#5: 3D mammograms can provide better images and may be covered by your health insurance.
Ultimately, something did show up and I actually was sent for an ultrasound. It all checked out fine, but I wonder if a 3D ultrasound would have provided that information without the need for the follow up testing. I was prepared for them to ask for me to return for better images, I was not prepared for them to say there was something on both sides and they needed the ultrasound to see what it was. That was a rough 72 hours and you’d better believe I’ll be seeking the 3D mammogram next time around if it’s at all possible.
This was a really rough experience for me and I wish I had known these 5 things in advance. I hope you learned something that will help you in your healthcare journey. Bottom line is that we need to be doing our monthly breast self exams, we need to be going to our annuals every year, and we need to be our own advocate when it comes to our health care.