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The big squeeze
Reducing mammogram discomfort

What’s your doctor looking for?

It may just look like black, white and shades of gray to you, but the radiologist is looking for some very specific things on your mammogram:

  • Calcifications, tiny mineral deposits in breast tissue, appear as white spots on X-rays. There are two types: macrocalcifications, which result from non-cancerous conditions such as old injuries or aging breast arteries, and micro-calcifications, which, depending on the shape and placement, could signal cancer’s presence.
  • Masses, growths possibly caused by fluid-filled cysts or solid tumors, may or may not be cancerous.

Mammograms can’t determine whether a growth is cancerous or benign—they can only determine whether something looks suspicious. Further testing such as biopsy, ultrasound or aspiration (analyzing fluid removed from a cyst) is needed. If you have a new healthcare provider performing your mammogram or you’re going to a new screening location, make sure to bring prior mammograms. These may show a mass that has been unchanged for years, sparing you an unnecessary biopsy.

OK, so maybe a mammogram isn’t your idea of fun. No procedure that involves flattening your breasts between two plastic plates could ever be described as enjoyable.

But consider the lifesaving potential of this test: A mammogram can detect breast cancer—the second leading cause of cancer death in women—years before you’d ever feel a lump. And when detected early, before it has a chance to spread, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer is 98 percent.

While mammograms can be uncomfortable, you can take the edge off with these steps:

  • Schedule your mammogram for a few days after your period has ended, when breasts are less tender. Avoid the week before your period.
  • Take a pain reliever like ibuprofen or acetaminophen an hour before your mammogram.
  • Avoid caffeine for two days before your test. Caffeine can increase breast tenderness.
  • Tell your healthcare provider if you have breast implants. Special care is needed when compressing breast implants to ensure they don’t rupture. The breasts must also be positioned and analyzed differently.
  • Ask your X-ray technician about thin, foam pads—such as the MammoPad—that can be placed between your breast and the mammography machine to lessen pain. Studies show the pads don’t interfere with imaging and can greatly reduce discomfort, allowing the X-ray technician to compress breasts more—without increased discomfort—to get better images.
  • Dress to undress. Mammograms require that you strip down to the waist, so wearing a two-piece outfit may help you feel less exposed.

Don’t let fear of discomfort keep you from getting a mammogram. Remember, just a few seconds of grin-and-bear-it could save your life.

© 2014 Dowden Health Media