My first mammogram

Time to meet the machine. It is upright and reminds me of a pillar drill. I'm asked to stand in front of it, but it's not clear how I’m meant to apply myself
Content TeamBy Content Team  •  Oct 5, 2017 at 10:06am  •  Health & Exercise, Women

I wrote the first draft of this within days of my scan. It was so sweary the company mail filter blocked it.

I was still in shock.

I’m calmer now, but still startled at the surreal brutality of that day. When the appointment was done, I was in a daze. I got home okay, but dropped my motorbike on our (horrible) gravel drive.

I went to work in a state of wide-eyed incredulity. I needed to talk. Fortunately we had a lunchtime yoga session. As we waited for stragglers, I blurted “I had my 1st mammogram today…” That’s all I had to say – the other 2 ladies took the subject and ran with it. Relief.


My milestones

As a girl, I’d learnt about periods. There was lots of info cos my Mum was fab and I enjoyed reading.

As a young woman, I learnt about smears. There was less formal info, more wincing from friends, “necessary evil” statements and speculum jokes.

As a woman, I started to hear about the menopause, but not properly until my mates started hitting it. I knew mammograms were routine for older women.


My letter

The NHS are running a study to see if there’s benefit in extending breast cancer screening 3 years either side of the current 50-70 age range. I got a golden ticket – one of 3 million.

Initially you’d think more screening is better, right? But this year I heard about some countries reducing their programmes. They’re acting on research that suggests the stress, surgery and related fun is disproportionate to the severity of most cancers breast screening finds.

Plus there’s no guarantee screening will catch your cancer. One of yoga ladies’ friends had found lumps in between their regular scans.

My friend found trouble before she even hit screening age. She’s already had a mastectomy, treatment, and reconstructive surgery well ahead of turning 50.


My scan

I meant to talk to my friend about my trial letter, but I put it off and ran out of time. Rather than cancel (make a decision), I went to my appointment (default).

I thought I was calm, but my stomach churned as I climbed the steps of the mobile screening unit – a lorry trailer in a car park. The receptionist was reassuring, and more relaxed about the time than the letter’s precise 10:41am appointment time suggested. I was a shown to a cubicle and asked to strip to the waist. Then, a knock on the internal door between me and the scanning room. A voice: “Ready when you are”. Was I?

I first met my radiographer in this state – trousers and boots on, naked otherwise. For her: standard. For me: insane. I was in a tin box, out the back of the High Street, with my tits out for a stranger. I’ve had better mornings.


How a mammogram works (image: Reuters)


Time to meet the machine. It is upright and reminds me of a pillar drill. I’m asked to stand in front of it, but it’s not clear how I’m meant to apply myself to it. The radiographer positioned me – head toward her, one shoulder back, the other forward, arms down. Twister is more fun, and more comfortable…

Before zapping, each boob is squashed flat. The leaflet said. The staff said. But for me this was a case of “women’s things” getting lost in translation. I was once asked at a Well Woman clinic if I was “breast aware”. Well, I’m aware I have breasts, but I guess that’s not what you mean…

By “squashed flat”, I expected my boobs to be pressed against my ribs. That’s how you flatten breasts, in my experience. That’s not what they meant. They meant: pop your boob on the table, then we’ll squash it in a vice. That wasn’t shown in the leaflet’s photos.

It. Fucking. Hurt.

So now I’m in shock. I know medics don’t like to say that something will hurt – it’s always “a sharp scratch” at the blood donors. But jeez, I was not prepared for this. I felt assaulted.

And now we have to do the other one. I’m scared, but I have to stand well or I’ll distort the image. Thankfully this boob wasn’t as sensitive, but it still hurts. When I mentioned this to the radiographer, she said, yes, she’d been able to apply more pressure on that side… What? Oh right, keep turning the screw and stop when the patient screams. Fabulous.

I apologise for swearing and she laughs. “You must get it a lot… No? Man… other women are *nails*.”


Nobody is this happy during their mammogram


Both boobs done so we’re through, right? Wrong. Great.

She tilts the machine through 45 degrees and we get another go. In this position, a pointy corner jabs into my armpit. She says “You can tell it was made by a man. We’d curve the edge.” It seems that whilst some machines have aesthetic curves, it’s all right angles at the patient interface.

My design brain is now confused. At the opticians, machines are designed to accommodate us: curved, padded headrests keep us positioned comfortably. But not the mammogram machine. A cynic would think it was designed by misogynists…

4 zaps in total and we’re done. Relief. Back to my cubicle. Put myself back together. “See you in 3 years.” I’ll look forward to it, but not as much as the smear.


Emma Humphrey was born aged 60 & has been regressing since. She had to become a feminist when it was unfashionable because she has opinions, men’s clothes fit her best &, in her eyes, glamour is all pain no gain. Studied architecture but now designs software for construction folk instead. See you down the skate park.

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