Why I Choose to have a Mammogram Every Year

Written on by Kathryn Lerro

I had my yearly mammogram today. Not my favorite thing to do, but I’m happy to say that the procedure isn’t as painful as it used to be. The newer 3-D machines have attachments that work better for a variety of body types—including mine. In case you weren’t aware, mammograms are more uncomfortable for small-breasted women like me (so not fair!), as ribs and muscles end up getting squeezed, too. I’ve had mammograms after which I still had pain a week later. And I’ve been pushed and pulled and pinched by radiology techs that were apparently having a very bad day.

But all-in-all, the one I had yesterday was pretty good: the result of a kind and skilled technician, who used the appropriate machine attachments to make me less uncomfortable.

I imagine in the future, new technologies will arise which will render mammograms obsolete. I go so far as to say that I think in the future, mammograms will be considered barbaric. (If you’ve ever had one, you might agree with me.) But for now, it’s what we have, and I choose to be grateful for them.

Not all that long ago, in the late 1960s, my mother’s sister found a lump buried deep under her breast tissue. She knew it was there because she could feel it rubbing against one of her ribs. Because of its location, her doctor couldn’t find it during an exam. My aunt insisted it was there. She went back to that doctor over and over, each time more adamant that something was there, and more upset that he wasn’t taking her seriously. It got to the point that the women who worked in the doctor’s office began making fun of her behind her back, calling her a hypochondriac. By the time the doctor finally sent her for the diagnostics which were available then, the cancer had spread. Surgery and chemo were too late. My aunt died at the age of 51.

About 20 years later, my mother developed breast cancer, too. She didn’t feel a lump—didn’t know anything was wrong. She stopped in at the doctor’s office my sister managed, and commented on the pin my sister was wearing. The pin read, “Have you had your mammogram today?” My mother’s comment was, “I’ve never had a mammogram.”

My sister gasped, then immediately scheduled the test. Within two weeks our mother had had the mammogram, a biopsy, had received a diagnosis, and was scheduled for surgery. Thankfully, she did not need chemo or radiation. She lived another 24 years, and I’m very glad she did.

So when I’m tempted to complain about the discomfort of my yearly mammogram, I think of my aunt and my mother—and I keep my mouth shut.

There’s a lot of controversy over mammograms. If you aren’t aware of it, just Google: “Do mammograms save lives?”, and you’ll see what I mean.

Some people worry that the radiation and the inflammation from the intense pressure might actually cause cancer—those are thoughts I’ve had myself, and thoughts I’ve discussed with my doctor. Other people resist the diagnostic procedure because mammograms sometimes find tiny tumors which if left alone might not progress into anything life-threatening. They believe that mammograms used for screening (as opposed to follow-up after a lump is found by a patient or during an exam) expose women to treatments they don’t really need, as well as the trauma of a cancer scare.

All I know is that if my aunt had been able to have a mammogram when she first detected the lump—or before she did—it’s likely that she’d have lived a much longer life. She’d probably have lived to see her grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up, and perhaps she’d have been my mother’s best friend for another 30 or 40 years.
We all have to make life choices and health care choices that are best for us as individuals. Hopefully we’ll do our homework and base those choices on our own reading and research, as well as input from our health care professionals.

One of the reasons I made the choice to have a mammogram every year is because of the history of breast cancer in my family, but the biggest reason is that I love my family. If I were to die of breast cancer because I chose not to be screened for it, I would expect my family to be angry with me. (I’d have been very angry with my mom if she had died too soon because she’d neglected her self-care!)

Wanting to be here for my family as long as I can is worth the discomfort. 

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