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Squished Boobs, a Single Tear and a Ton of Relief

My mammogram journey.

Patient Julie Shapiro wears a white robe and looks at mammogram machine with a scared look on her face.
Patient Julie Shapiro gets up close and personal with a mammogram machine. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Julie Shapiro
We see the back of a doctor's head and back. She is wearing blue hospital scubs, a mask and a hair covering. She is looking at a mammogram image on a lightbox on the wall.

Mammograms are no walk in the park.

My breasts have always been good to me. Sure they started growing sooner than I was ready and stopped growing sooner than I would have liked. But they’ve never given me any trouble. A job at Hooters is not in my future, but “the girls” have nourished two babies and my husband has never had any complaints, so…

For my 40th birthday, I decided to give them a present.

A mammogram may not seem like a gift to most people, but to me, a clean bill of health sounded like the perfect start to my 40s. More than 40,000 women die from breast cancer each year. That’s a lot of deaths from a disease that is treatable when found early. In fact, one recent study found that if every woman aged 40 to 84 got a mammogram every year, the death rate from breast cancer would drop by an average of 40 percent.

When I thought about the staggering stats we all see every day, coupled with my strong family history of the disease, it wasn’t a hard sell when my doctor suggested I make an appointment.

I had heard that mammograms hurt a little, but wasn’t sure what that meant. I’ve had a tonsillectomy, I’ve broken bones, I’ve given birth…I’m familiar with pain. So I was pretty cocky walking in. I knew I could handle it.

At the imaging center, I was escorted to a private changing room where I was handed a robe and instructed to undress from the waist up. I’m not sure of the thread count, but the little cotton number sure beat the boxy paper robes we patients have learned to tolerate when visiting doctors’ offices. I locked my valuables in a locker and made my way down the hall to await my turn. After a few minutes, my name was called and off I went.

“Getting a mammogram was what you did when you turned 40. Getting cancer wasn’t.”

What came next wasn’t the walk in the park I had expected. As a technician placed my right breast on a cold, flat surface and remotely navigated the machine to clamp down, I could feel the edges of the plate scraping against my ribs. And the pressure was intense. I asked why it was necessary to squeeze so hard. The technician explained that compression reduced breast thickness so we get a clearer picture of my breast tissue. There’s debate within the medical community about whether more compression leads to clearer pictures and hence, lives saved. Either way, from the feel of it, my radiologist would have a crystal clear picture with which to do her thing. I was told to hold my breath—easy because I was doing it anyway. The technician promised me it would be over quick. I shed a single tear and bit my lip. I guess “hurt a little” is a relative phrase. It was fast, as promised, but I was a lot less confident as she arranged my body to capture different angles and the other breast. Then it was over.

As I sat in a room with several other women, communally waiting for our individual reports, a thought popped into my head: What if I had cancer? I had been brushing off this event as a rite of passage. Getting a mammogram was what you did when you turned 40. Getting cancer wasn’t.

I thought about my grandmothers, both of whom had breast cancer. It wasn’t a stretch to think that I could get it too. For the very first time, I felt scared. Heartbreaking stories of friends of friends who were diagnosed with breast cancer at unfairly young ages haunted my thoughts as I waited…and waited…and waited. I thought about my kids. I thought about my husband. I thought about what it must be like to be one of the 250,000 women who will get a routine mammogram this year and hear the words, “I have some bad news” from a doctor. And then I stopped thinking because I started to feel sick.

I looked around the room, spotted some complimentary snacks on a side table, and dug in.

I’m an emotional eater.

A technician called my name and silently brought me to a room filled with sonogram equipment. They needed to look at a few things more closely. I started to panic a little. I didn’t know at the time that it’s fairly common for women to need additional or alternate images (especially if it’s your first time or if you haven’t yet gone through menopause) and being called back does not mean you have cancer.

The room was dark and cozy and since I was able to watch the technician’s facial expressions as she rolled the hand-held device over my breasts, I was able to calm down. I decided that since she didn’t look nervous, there was no reason for me to be.

About an hour later, I heard the magic words: “Everything looks fine. Please come back in a year.” It turns out I’m riddled with harmless cysts, causing the extreme discomfort from the mammogram—dense, cystic breasts are just more sensitive to the compression—and the need for the follow-up sonogram. However, because women with dense breasts are at an increased risk to develop breast cancer, I was encouraged to turn my birthday mammogram into an annual tradition.

Deep breath.

My birthday wish had come true. Pain and scary thoughts be damned. Peace of mind makes for a joyous gift.

My breasts and I sprung out of the imaging center with a relieved smile (me) and a perky bounce (all of us).

Next steps and useful resources

  • Read about mammograms in the news.
  • How do your personal history and lifestyle choices impact your risk of developing breast cancer? Take our health risk assessment and find out.

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Published December 7th, 2017
We see the back of a doctor's head and back. She is wearing blue hospital scubs, a mask and a hair covering. She is looking at a mammogram image on a lightbox on the wall.

Mammograms are no walk in the park.