Apparently breast screening is offered to all women aged 47 – 73 who are registered with a GP in England, or aged 50 – 70 in the rest of the UK. I don’t quite know how, but I got to 50 before anyone got around to contacting me about it. I knew I was due a mammogram, but was dreading the process so was being very lazy about following it up. Which was silly, as early detection is key — as with any cancer or life-threatening disease. Breast cancer is a disease that affects many people — not just those with the disease but those around them too.
They finally caught up with me though, and I received a lovely letter from the NHS giving me an appointment to go and have my boobs squished in an x-ray scanner. Great. I’d not been looking forward to it. Partly this was because I have a seriously bad back, and had heard horror stories of being pushed and shoved around to fit in the scanner, which gave me the heebie jeebies. Seriously, if you know anyone with a bad back, don’t just shove them around. Ever.
Also, to be blunt about it, my breasts are somewhat larger than average and I’d heard that those machines squished pretty hard. I had visions of bursting like an over-ripe pimple, which would have been bad, obviously.
The good news was that the appointment was at one of those massive mobile scanners that get set up in various car parks around the country, so at least I could go to my local town 3 miles away, and not have to fight my way through the traffic to get into the hospital, which is over 15 miles away. The scanner van had prominent posters on the way in to remind people to pay and display — you don’t get a free pass just because you’re there for medical reasons.
I set off feeling surprisingly more optimistic than I had been expecting. Climbing the stairs would be a bit of a challenge for those with a fear of heights, or who are less mobile than I am, but once up I found myself in a miniscule reception area. The usual formalities of confirming my name, date of birth and address were followed by being shown to a tiny cubicle and told to remove my bra, put my top back on, and wait until summoned.
“The door into the scanning area opened and there it all was – the instrument of torture.”
I heard the previous person leaving, the door into the scanning area opened and there it all was – the instrument of torture. I was expecting more shielding between the machine and the operator, but there was just a tall desk, so I assume the shielding around the scanner itself must be pretty good.
You start off with the machine upright, with the scanner bed flat; one scan of each boob. Then the scanner is tilted first one way and then the other to do one more scan of each boob at more of an angle that also catches the armpit, or at least as much as possible. I let the operator know that I had a bad back, and the shoving into place wasn’t too bad. Either I had been worrying over nothing (possible), or she was used to the problem and knew how to deal with it (also possible).
“There were a couple of brief moments of ouch, but no more than causing a sharp breath over clenched teeth.”
The squishing wasn’t too bad, although there were a couple of brief moments of ouch, but no more than causing a sharp breath over clenched teeth. There’s a clear Perspex layer that comes down to clamp you in place, and then the scanner passes over that from one side to the other.
The whole thing took less than 10 minutes, and then I was free to go – really not too bad at all, and I shan’t be worried about my next appointment in the slightest.
Less than two weeks later, I got a letter saying the results were fine — which felt pretty quick to me. I wasn’t expecting anything different. There’s no family history of it and I hadn’t noticed anything worrying beforehand, so the chances were it was going to be okay — but it’s still good to know for definite.
Breast screenings, or mammograms, are offered to women in the above age ranges by the NHS. It is recommended that you have one every three years, and you should get a letter to invite you to one. You can learn more about breast screening here.
Younger women aren’t routinely offered screening in this way because their risk is lower and also tissue is more dense and there is increased risk of false negative results. This may be different if you have a family history of breast cancer – if you’re under 30 then there are other scanning methods used. Younger women are encouraged to self-check their own breasts once a month. You can learn more about self checking here.
If you have any concerns about your breasts – whether that be a lump, a pain or something else that has changed recently, please see your GP.