Why Squish Our Breasts at Mammograms? Can We Find a Better Way?

Note: I encourage women to get regular mammogram screenings. They are uncomfortable, but believe me, early detection can prevent far more painful experiences. And you’re tough—you’ve got this. Meanwhile, let me share in my hyperbolic, humorous way about my own recent mammogram.

I diligently get annual mammogram screenings. With cancer in my family and having lost a close friend to breast cancer, I’m a believer in early detection. I had my screening last week, and for the first time ever got a follow-up call asking me to come back for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound because the radiologist had seen something suspicious on the film.

I made my appointment for early the next morning and told myself to ignore the anxiety humming in my chest for the rest of the day. There are many more false positives than real reasons to worry, but I still found myself thinking What if…?

I’ll spoil the ending right here and say that everything is absolutely fine. No bad news. Which is good news!

But my experience was not so good.

While I think screening mammograms are uncomfortable, I’ve never found them particularly painful. Not so with the follow-up! I walked into the room, wearing the usual pink shawl, and listened to the mammo tech explain what they’d seen and what pictures she’d take for the radiologist. It was all very kind and professional . . . right up until “just drop the shawl off your shoulder.” Then IT began.

Why Squish Our Breasts at Mammograms? Can We Find a Better Way?

Once they’ve seen something on the film, they are determined to get a super-great shot of your breast. Which means that tech is willing to grab, yank, and squish my body into that machine with all the force of a pro-wrestler. Once I’m properly sandwiched between the two plates that hold you in place, she turns the dial to tighten the grip. And turns . . . and turns . . . and turns.

Holy flapjacks, that hurts. Then she gives this helpful advice: “Now don’t move.” As If I Could! What, like I’m going try to back away, leaving my ta-ta clenched in the machine? My breasts aren’t taffy — believe me, I ain’t movin’.

She leaves me to push the button and take the picture, with the admonition “Don’t breathe, don’t breathe, don’t breathe.” Not sure if I could anyway, what with my lungs scurrying away for fear of being next on the hit list.

When the machine opens, it’s like a breath of fresh air . . . in Hawaii. Aaaaaahhh.

But I relax too soon. Because we ain’t done. She’s taking six views, and every one will be slap-your-mama painful.

Here’s a tip for those who must have this lovely experience: Don’t. Look. Down. That’s the same advice you’d get standing on a high building with a fear of heights, but in this case you don’t get that oh-dear-I’m-going-to-fall feeling; rather, you realize just how malleable your breast really is and how far it can be flattened. You’ll immediately want to send your boobage a sympathy card. It’s a wonder that breast bounces back at all.

All this left me wondering: Is there really not a better way? In a world where I can text Japan and print a 3-D house model and get directions from my car’s GPS to a pedicure spa in an unfamiliar city (yes, I did that last one) . . . surely we can come up with some other way to scan a breast for cancerous tissue!

How about a GoFundMe campaign for a Magic Wand Mammogram, which works by waving a stick in the vicinity of your girls? Maybe it could be a dual-purpose machine, like a Body Tanner/Mammogram — where you’d get a full body tan while they also check up on your lady parts? How about treating mammograms like a car wash, where I simply sit in a chair and get pushed through a tunnel that scans my breasts as I pass by?

I came from the generation that witnessed and adored the first Terminator movie. I understand the Rise of the Machines. But I don’t think it will come in the form of a human-shaped robot or shape-shifting liquid metal.

Oh no, I now fear the Rise of the Mammogram Machine. Just imagine the havoc that could be wreaked by a mammogram machine rum amok in our cities, randomly snapping at women’s breasts with all the gentleness of an elephant charging in the jungle. Whole towns could be shut down by women refusing to go outside and face the “Pancake Monsters.” Or at least a few Bunco groups would get canceled. Imagine the tragedy!

I hear our local diagnostic center is getting 3-D imaging very soon. I don’t know how much that will improve the experience. But I think I’ll take their comment card and write a few helpful suggestions like:

  • How about giving me a free massage after the diagnostic mammogram to loosen my muscles and make me forget the soreness in my chest?
  • Could you print and pass out stickers or T-shirts that say, I Survived the Mammogram Machine Invasion of 2015?
  • When I disrobe in the exam room, could someone at least throw me a string of colorful beads?

What adds insult to injury is that my deductible was not met, so I actually paid $164 for this joyful encounter. That could have been a nice dinner and an overnight hotel stay with the hubster — in which my private places would have gotten very different and far more enjoyable attention.

Oh well, I’m willing to do what it takes to keep everything in working order. The end result is I did survive, I’m only a little sore, and it was all benign. Besides, I have full year to recover before I get up-close-and-personal with the mammogram machine again. Let’s hope next year is just the usual, uncomfortable screening.

27 thoughts on “Why Squish Our Breasts at Mammograms? Can We Find a Better Way?

  1. Mrs. Right

    Ouch. Not me, no thanks! Besides not being willing to subject myself to incredible pain, I’m not interested in paying for the experience of being tortured and having cancer-causing radiation flood into my delicate parts. You are right, there has to be a better way!

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      Yikes! I really don’t mean to discourage ANYONE from having their screenings! Please take the health of your breasts seriously, everyone! There will be better ways soon, but it was one day of pain vs cancer treatment if we missed something. I will totally take the one day of pain — worth every moment.

      Reply
  2. Reiko

    Personally, it wouldn’t be worth it to me. I get manual examinations routinely, but that’s it. There’s increasing evidence that the radiation of mammograms can, especially cumulatively over years of having them annually, actually cause the cancer it’s trying to detect. Plus the mental and physical effects of a false positive can be nearly as devastating as having cancer.

    I eat healthy, take care of my body, and trust it to tell me if there’s something really wrong. That approach wouldn’t work for everyone, but I’d still aim for fewer mammograms (space them out more, at least) and more manual examinations.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I simply know too many people whose cancer was not detectable through manual examinations — only machine screening. And they are alive today because of early detection. I’m personally not willing to take that risk.

      Reply
  3. Rachel

    Wow, this post is scary. I’m going to be 38 and I haven’t had a mammogram yet and I have very large boobs so the thought of squeezing these giant jugs into the torture device is enough for me to swoon from agony. I already have enough problems with pap smears. Even though I’ve been married for almost 7 years, pap smears hurt extremely. I have to have the smallest speculum and even then it hurts so much and I know why (it’s due to my husband’s anatomy). I’ve been in tears. I couldn’t even finish infertility testing because they couldn’t put in the regular speculum in me. I was in SO MUCH pain so I’m not looking forward to this :(.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      Truly, the screening ones aren’t bad. I didn’t mean to scare you. Rest assured, it won’t be that bad, and you’ll be glad you took charge of your health! Believe me, this beats cancer treatment by miles.

      And ow on the speculum. Wonder why that is…

      Reply
      1. Anonymous

        I’m a Mammography Tech (20 years), and I happened to stumble upon this. I hear everything you said all day long from everyone. I also thought it would scare the crap out of the girls who haven’t had a mammo yet, and I see it did. I had my 1st mammo earlier this year at age 38. I never thought the day would come, but it did. It was totally tolerable. I know the extra spot compression views can add more pressure, but you deal with it. Unfortunately any new machine that comes out for breast screening requires compression of the breast. Reason being, we can’t see between the tissues! Any machine to detect cancer of the breast without compression involves detecting heat emitting from the breast, i.e. a cancer. By the time a cancer emits heat will be humongous and too late. Mammo, Breast MRI, and tomosynthesis all require compression. We also tell you not to move because WOMEN DO! They have pulled out, looked down, hand or arm moved, feet moved, you name it! We tell you not to breathe to avoid blurry images. Mammogram involves radiation. We as techs have to provide the best picture with as little radiation as possible, which is why we tell you all those things. So we don’t have repeats. Our job is really hard!!! So many women are so nasty to us yet we have to be smiling, caring, and provide a good mammo with uncooperative women more often than not. We’re trying to make sure you don’t have breast cancer. The test takes 5 minutes!!! There’s a reason we do all we do, and there should be a blog stating that, rather than the same thing every woman says already. Please get your mammograms, ladies! Early detection can really save your life!

        Reply
        1. J Post author

          This was intended as humor, and I constantly encourage women to get over their fears and frustrations and have the mammogram! You’re right: It’s only a few minutes and saves lives. If you want a more serious article from me on the subject, see Check Out Those Breasts.

          Reply
    2. Abra | Mere Breath

      Have you seen a specialist to address the speculum pain? That is potentially a fixable problem. Also, unless you are a high-risk candidate for breast cancer, they don’t start mammograms until the age of 40. A mammogram caught my grandmother’s cancer and she fought it and beat it and lived to a ripe old age — to God be the glory! I don’t care how uncomfortable it may be, I will get them when my dr asks me to because I want to live! Mammograms are just another (painful) gift God gives us as a tool in our lives, like broccoli, asprin or high heels. 😉

      Reply
  4. Dawn B.

    I have had very similar experiences with the annual Mammogram! My health care provider now has ‘digital’ mammograms which to me, are 90% less painful. Now before I got for my annual, I just take a Tylenol or Ibuprofen before the exam and I survive! I have also pretty much eliminated caffeine from my daily intake and that helps too! Too much caffeine can often make the breasts tender.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      Well, that makes me feel better. I’m weaning myself off caffeine. (Mostly quit sodas recently! But it’s a process.)

      Reply
  5. nylse

    I think over time the mammogram is not so painful. My macabre thoughts lean toward the technician and how she’s handling different sizes shapes and colors of breasts all day. Must make for interesting dinner conversation!

    Reply
  6. Amy

    I was curious if you have ever looked into Thermal Body Imaging as an alternative to the mammograms? I recently had my first scan done and will need a follow up 3-6 months to find a baseline. Breast cancer runs in my family and I recently turned 40, so am trying to be proactive, which prompted research. I ran across relatively new possible dangers of the mammograms so started seeking an alternative. It seemed that the mammogram is 88% effective in detection and so is the thermography, so the recommendation was to use the 2 together for a higher percentage of detection. Anyway, I don’t have many cold hard facts to report or success using either (which I guess is good), but just wanted to offer a possible option.
    Love your blog and always look forward to your honest posts,
    A newbie to the world of squishing the ta-ta’s.

    Reply
      1. Anonymous

        I’ve heard good things about thermography. I saw it mentioned that *if* cancer cells are present, that the squishing in the mammogram could cause cancer cells to break off and travel to other parts of the body. I need to do research on this myself!

        Reply
        1. J Post author

          I believe that screening will certainly get better. I’m looking forward to advancements, but I do know women who were saved by early detection.

          Reply
  7. Tim

    Hello, saw your post and thought you’d enjoy learning that many university’s including the one I study at are currently working on using microwaves for medical imaging, so radar mammograms essentially. The great feature is that there is no harmful radiation, so no cancer risk in later life, and absolutely no squishing! I actually hope to work on this myself as my research is on curved sensors ideal for this sort of scanner. Imagine a world with no more X-ray mammograms, simply convient and comfortable radar imaging. You simply lie on it front on a bed and let your delicate parts rest in suitably sized cups/depressions in the bed. You are asked to hold your breath for a second, and your done. Clinical trials have already started.

    Reply
  8. Cindy Gullo

    This made me laugh outloud. I feel your pain sister. Having heterogenously dense breasts (yes, that is a medical term), I go through this every six months, along with a follow-up ultrasound because I have benign cysts in both breasts. I am sorry to tell you that the 3-D Mammography is no less painful, just better pictures. Maybe better pictures will make the follow-up unnecessary. I love your blog!!! Informative and funny.

    Reply
  9. Suzanne Davis

    Congratulations for having negative (meaning good in Doctor Speak) findings on your diagnostic mammogram. I’m a 13 year survivor of breast cancer, and my cancer was found by mammogram. It wasn’t seen in 2001, but in 2002 my tumor looked huge. I did my annual mammogram on my surviving breast this week. Praise the Lord for giving someone the idea of having those “jaws of death” spring open once the X-ray is taken. Remember when you had to wait for X-ray Tech to walk across the room to release your precious boob?

    A short story. A co-worker went for her annual mammogram. Just as the X-ray Tech had gotten her flattened down good, the fire alarm went off. And the X-ray Tech left the room. And didn’t come back. My friend is still squashed and held captive by the machine. She started screaming for help, and someone finally came to rescue her. What a nightmare! What pain! Oy…

    Mammograms are important. It’s a very minor pain compared to being diagnosed with advanced stage Breast cancer. A mastectomy with reconstruction followed by chemotherapy is doable to save your life, but it is not fun. Cancers found by mammogram tend to be smaller and, therefore, more easily treated. It’s also important to go to one facility, because it is of vital important that the radiologist may compare 2015 films with previous years. Sure, we woman would prefer any easier way, but until that time comes: do your annual mammogram every year. It just might save your life!

    Reply
  10. Bill

    My wife had to go for a second mammogram, also. Thankfully it was negative.
    But they told her that, if the second mammogram looked suspicious, she would have to go in for a sonogram. Well, duh! If the sonogram gives a more definitive picture than a mammogram, why not do that in the first place? The equipment has to be way cheaper and there’s no ionizing radiation. Is it simply a matter of economics – all of that specialized mammogram equipment would become immediately obsolete, generating no revenue whatsoever?
    I have also read of a machine that is completely passive. It looks at the infrared signature of the breasts and tumors show up as “hot-spots”. Supposedly it is more sensitive than even the best mammogram equipment.
    It is also my understanding that the 3-D imaging equipment will multiply the amount of ionizing radiation the sensitive breast tissue is exposed to.
    I don’t know if any of this is true. They are just things I have read here and there.

    Reply
  11. Jem

    I’ve never gotten a mammogram done. I hate the idea, and going to doctors, and people LOOKING at me, apart from my husband… But I’ve also heard that sometimes the squishing can pop the cancer or something, and make it go through your body faster, so I’m quite nervous. Never get a proper physical, either, I’m kinda phobic about it. I even hated that part of giving birth.

    Reply
  12. Valerie Nemeth

    Considering how the dudes have a PSA test for prostate cancer, maybe there should be a blood test for breast cancer too or maybe a pee or urine test similar to a pregnancy test and maybe such tests may or may not pick the cancer up even sooner.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      Dudes may have a PSA test, but don’t they also get, um, probed? Which is pretty uncomfortable. But I agree that we should continue to look for new and better ways to gauge cancer presence and risk!

      Reply

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