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Published on September 22, 2020

Sonja Hegman

Everything You Need to Know Before Your First Mammogram

When I turned 40 last year, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Would I feel different? Would I immediately grow wiser? Would shouting, “Get off my lawn,” while shaking my fist in the air become the new normal?

In reality, you’re told you need bifocals, your neck and back problems intensify, and more routine screenings are required to ensure you aren’t fully falling apart.

In February, just before the pandemic hit, I got my first mammogram.

Clutching my backpack like a teenager expecting to see the principal, I fidgeted in the waiting area, picking at my nails and lightly bouncing my knees while anticipating my turn. An older woman sat across from me. She gave me a knowing smile, possibly as a reassurance that this was nothing and everything would be fine.

Given my history of cancer — I was diagnosed and recovered from cervical cancer in 2014 — I’m always a bit nervous about necessary, routine screenings. It was during a routine Pap test that my cervical cancer was discovered. My breasts, however, have never been the focus of much medical scrutiny.

When You Find a Breast Lump

At 16, I found a lump. My mother had always told me, “Take care of your girls,” and showed me, at a young age, how to do a self-exam. Not knowing what to do, and not wanting to worry my parents — they had enough going on — I made an appointment with a female doctor. Our primary care physician was male and this was far too embarrassing to bring to him.

Convinced that I definitely had breast cancer and was going to die, I burst into tears when the doctor asked me to explain what was going on.

“It’s OK. Calm down. Because of your age, it’s probably nothing. Let’s just take a look.”

She immediately put me at ease by saying, “Well, you could poke someone’s eye out with that thing,” referring to the lump, and I laugh-cried. It turned out to be nothing. She said if I cut caffeine out of my diet, the lump would naturally disappear on its own.

I think about all of this as my radiologic technologist asks me questions:

  • Does breast cancer run in your family? No.
  • How old were you when you started menstruating? 15.
  • Have you ever had cancer? Yes.
  • What kind? Cervical.
  • How old? 35.
  • Do you still get your period? No, I had a hysterectomy.
  • What age? 35.
  • Have you ever had breast concerns? Yes, a benign lump when I was 16 that was caffeine-related.

“Is that something I have to worry about now that I’m older?” I ask of my aforementioned caffeinated lump.

“Oh, no. It’s common to have fibrocystic breast changes. Lumps like that are benign and nothing to worry about.”

Things I Learned During My First Mammogram

Honestly, a mammogram is less uncomfortable than other screenings I’ve had. The only uncomfortable part, if there is one, is that you have to be deodorant-free before your screening. I have a sweating problem, aka my hormones have broken my thermostat. But my appointment took only about 30 minutes from arrival to departure, and I always carry my spare deodorant.

After the medical history is squared away, you’ll be asked to disrobe from the waist up and to wear a sort of hospital gown half-shirt, which is quite comfy. And then you’ll be asked into the screening room.

The radiologic technologist ensures that you’re as comfortable as possible and distracts you while you’re “exposed.” And, honestly, you’re not that exposed. While you’re in the screening room, one breast is only exposed at a time. I’m not shy (anymore) when it comes to being exposed for medical reasons, but it was nice not to be standing there completely topless.

My tech was so good at keeping the small talk going that I barely noticed when she was maneuvering my breast tissue to get the perfect images.

How long will it take to receive my mammogram results?

If your mammogram comes back normal, you’ll receive a letter in the mail. I received mine about a week after my screening, but this timeline can vary. The letter will say something along the lines of, “Hooray! Things are normal. Come see us in a year.”

I was quite impatient about receiving my results so I kept looking in my AveraChart account, where my results were posted a couple of days sooner. Overall, my first mammogram was a pleasant experience and something I’m glad I didn’t delay. Screenings simply give you peace of mind.

Now that clinics are back to a new normal, this is the time to schedule that mammogram. Don’t deny yourself of something that could save your life.

By Sonja Hegman, Avera Writer/Editor

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