I worked for nearly six years at a foundation that raised money for breast cancer research, and educated people about the importance of prevention and early detection. It was part of my job to write messaging that would clearly explain, and hopefully convince, women that this was the right thing to do.
In British Columbia, women of “average risk” can start having mammograms at the age of 40. I’ve been telling women for the past eight years to do this basic test as part of taking care of themselves, and as of November I am finally at the age where I can put my money where my mouth is and join the ranks.
I’ve been waiting for this day for over eight years, but some funny things happened. First, I was away for my birthday so I couldn’t book an appointment for right when I turned 40. So why didn’t I book the minute I got back? Truth? I got busy and forgot. This is one of the most common reasons I used to hear from women, and I totally get how easy it is to let this slide. The second thing was a bit more surprising. I got a little bit anxious. And it was just a little bit, because I have a LOT of information in my brain about the risks, statistics, etc. I know many women that have been through treatment, and I also know women that did not make it. I know the facts and I wasn’t worried. But still, I realized I was placing myself in a situation where IF there was something to find, they were going to find it. And now I understand, I finally get it, how some women go through some anxiety and maybe just would rather not know.
But wait a minute. If there is a cancerous mass growing in my body, I want to know. And I want to know EARLY, when it’s much easier to remove or treat. If you leave it and don’t find out, it could potentially grow to a point where treatment is either longer and more difficult, or virtually impossible. The research shows that when cancer is diagnosed in younger women (under 50), it is typically more aggressive and faster growing, so if there is something in there I want it OUT.
I was so happy to see that the process I’d been describing to women was in fact what actually happens. The whole process was over within 10 minutes from the moment I walked in the door, and that includes the time it took to take the selfie when I was done. I had to wash off the deodorant I had put on earlier in the day, take off my bra in a cubicle, then go into the exam room. If you’re at all modest it takes a bit to get used to, because you’re topless in front of another person and she then has to manipulate your boobs into the right position before the machine lowers down to compress them for the picture. After having two kids my modesty has pretty much flown out the window, so I was fine. Four pictures in total, one each from the top and one each from the side. I was actually fascinated by the whole process. The machine revolves to allow for the different angles, and you have to lean to the side, keep your chin up, relax your shoulder…it was pretty involved and a bit counter-intuitive because you want to look but you can’t with your chin lifted. It wasn’t painful at all for me, although I know some women do find it can hurt. Granted, it certainly wasn’t comfortable and I wouldn’t want to stand in that position for longer than I had to. The worst part was when it pushed against my sternum/breast plate as it lowered, and even that wasn’t bad. Four pictures and done, results to come to me and my doctor in two weeks. Bim, bam, boom, done.
This is a very personal decision. This is what’s right for me, based on the information I have, but I know it’s not the right choice for everyone. There are benefits and limitations to mammography. It isn’t a perfect exam but it really is the best defence when it comes to early detection. I do believe that every woman should go after the age of 40 if she can, but some choose to wait until they turn 50 (and in some provinces that is when the screening program starts). Women in their 40’s tend to have more follow up requests, often just to ensure the radiologists know what they are looking at and that it’s nothing to worry about. Also, no test is perfect. Mammograms aren’t either and yes, they can miss some cancers.
Here is a video from the BC Cancer Agency that explains about mammography and the program.
Here are some facts and myths to clear up any misinformation that might be out there.
Ultimately, you should speak to your doctor and then make your own decision once you’re informed. But whatever you choose to do, take care of yourself and your body. As Jim Rohn said, it’s the only place you have to live.