What to expect at your first mammogram

With the positive news that acceptance of mammogram invitations is on the increase, in the UK, I thought I would answers some of those burning questions, allay some fears you might have about your first mammogram and tell you what you can expect. 

When will I be invited for a mammogram? 

In the UK women between the ages of 50 and 70 will receive an invitation for a routine mammogram every 3 years. You don’t generally get called before the age of 40 because younger women’s breasts are denser making it harder to spot changes in the tissue.  However, I was invited early at the age of 48, read my story below. 

Where will it take place? 

In the UK a mammogram take place at a specialist breast screening or hospital clinic, or a mobile unit (a large RV/ trailer purpose built for mammograms) – TESCO car park is where I had mine – inside the mobile unit, not the trolley bay you understand!!! 

How long does it take? 

Your mammogram takes about 30 minutes in total.

Who performs the mammogram? 

A female technician will perform the mammogram.  This all takes place in a high-tech but relatively calming environment. 

What will I be asked to do?  

You will be asked to undress to the waist and remove any jewellery, to avoid it showing up on the x-ray.  Avoid aluminium containing deodorants on the day as the dense particles can look like calcification affecting the results.

What does it feel like and will it hurt? 

Basically, your boobs will be manipulated between two x-ray plates at various angles by the technician, so as you would imagine there is some discomfort; nothing you can’t handle though.  Ladies with both small and large breasts say it’s uncomfortable, so I don’t think size has too much to do with it.  And boobs are very tough glands! 

When do I get my results? 

Generally, you get your results within two weeks and on average 1 in 25 women will get a recall. 

I’m too young for a mammogram currently, so what should I do? 

If you are too young for a mammogram, then make sure that you check your breast regularly.  A good place to do it is in the shower or bath.  With your arm raised feel all the way round your breast, not forgetting your collarbone and your armpits.  Just get used to how your boobs feel, so that you can tell if something doesn’t feel right to you.  If you are concerned about anything or something feels out of the ordinary, make an appointment to see your GP immediately. It’s probably nothing, but it’s better to have it checked.

Image courtesy of Prevent Breast Cancer

My story 

“So, if we rewind a six years, I discovered a lump in my breast.  I called my GP and I was in the surgery within the hour.  I was then sent to the local hospital for my very first mammogram to investigate things further.  As it turns out it was a breast cyst.  It was decided not to aspirate it, but to allow it to disperse of its own accord. 

I might not see my grandkids born and grow up; what about the holiday I had booked; how will my husband cope without me! My mind was a whirl.

Fast forward to February 2019, when I was 48, I received an invitation to have my first official mammogram.  A very good friend of mine, who is the same age, received an invite at the same time too.  Having had my mammogram, I didn’t get my results when my friend did. Instead, I received a recall letter, after about 3 or so weeks, inviting me to the local breast clinic.  Same breast as the previous cyst.  I don’t mind telling you that I was beside myself about this.  I was thinking all the crazy stuff you think at a time like that; I might not see my grandkids born and grow up; what about the holiday I had booked; how will my husband cope without me!  My mind was in a whirl.   

Thankfully two beacons shone out for me during this time.  The first came in the shape of my son-in-law’s mum who is a breast cancer nurse.  She kept me sane providing me with information about what to expect at the recall appointment and the steps forward, as well as trying to allay my fears associated with this kind or mortality check. The second was the charity Breast Cancer Now, because they have a forum – which I joined – and which was an absolutely amazing virtual place where you can ask all the questions you want.  It was full of people, just like me, who were in the “limboland” of not knowing.  And when I received my results from the recall appointment, I couldn’t wait to share it with my new found virtual friends.   

Going to the recall appointment pulls no punches, let me tell you, but the place I went to could have doubled as a meditation centre or a yoga studio because it was such a calm environment to be in, which in turned calmed me down. The nurse talked to me immediately about the reality of being diagnosed with breast cancer.   

I was able to press the play button again.

I had another mammogram and had to sit in the waiting room for the results.  Tenterhooks really doesn’t cut it. I was eventually called back into the doctor’s office for the results… it turns out that the cyst had reared its ugly head again, and although I had almost no pain at the time, that’s what had shown up on my initial mammogram.  The Doctor had to aspirate the cyst to check the fluid that was drawn from it, but everything was OK!  Relieved really doesn’t explain how I felt.  It meant that my life was back on, I was able to press the play button again, having been on pause for the previous three or so weeks. 

Sadly my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of October 2019 and just after Christmas the same year. she underwent a partial mastectomy. Thankfully, this isn’t a hereditary type of breast cancer which means that myself and my daughters don’t have to be any more regular check ups than would be expected. I also very happy to report that my mum is doing really well – despite having to deal with long periods of time over the past year shielding due to Covid – and her attitude is a total inspiration to anyone going through a similar situation!”

My advice is this, when you get an invitation for a mammogram or a cervical cancer test for that matter, accept it with both hands.  We are all in agreement it’s not the most glamourous thing that can happen to you granted, but it’s actually a lifesaver.

All too often you hear horror stories of women that were too busy to have the test or to go back to a recall, only to ending up with terminal cancer. Caught early enough, breast and cervical cancers can have a 100% recovery rate!

In the UK these well women tests are available free of charge on the NHS. So please don’t put it off, don’t be put off by the thought of it and don’t become a statistic!


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