Kacy Vega is a marketing specialist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Centers.
Forty creeps up on you quicker than you think it will. One day, I found myself in my doctor’s office and heard, “Oh, I see you’re turning 40 soon. We should get you scheduled for your first screening mammogram.”
A mammogram. Not exactly the birthday gift I had in mind, but I knew I should heed my doctor’s advice. Still, I felt apprehensive and wondered, “What goes on back there in the exam room? What should I do to prepare?”
I soon discovered that getting a screening mammogram is pretty straightforward. Recognizing that mammograms can find cancer early, when it is easier to treat — paired with the knowledge of what to anticipate before, during and after the process — helped in motivating me to take this important step for my health and wellness. And if you’re feeling hesitant about getting your first screening mammogram, hopefully this will motivate you too.
Here’s what you can expect for your first screening — or baseline — mammogram:
Before the screening: scheduling and preparation
While you can schedule a mammogram any time of year, new and established Sharp Rees-Stealy patients can also take advantage of convenient walk-in times for screening mammograms in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. New patients should have an assigned primary care doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy where their scan results can be sent. Throughout the month of October, six Sharp Rees-Stealy locations are offering screenings — no appointment needed — Monday through Friday from 9 am to 4 pm.
“We want to make it as easy as possible for you to get screened because it is so important. Early detection is the best prevention,” says Kim Gaddy, mammography lead for Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Centers.
As far as scheduling goes, try to plan your mammogram during a week that is not directly before your menstrual cycle, as breasts can be more tender at that time. It is also recommended to wait 4 to 6 weeks after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine or booster before getting a screening mammogram.
On the day of your mammogram, be sure to avoid wearing deodorant, lotions and powders as presence of these substances can sometimes show up in the results.
During the screening: communicating with your technologist
At the imaging center, a receptionist will guide you to the changing room where you will disrobe from the waist up and put on the cover-up provided. If you are wearing large or dangling jewelry, you may be asked to remove it. The technologist then takes you back for your screening, running you through a few intake questions and explaining what to expect from the 10- to 15-minute process.
For the screening, the technologist will typically take two images of each breast — one from top to bottom and one from side to side. To obtain the images, each breast is placed one at a time between two plastic plates. The plates gradually compress the breast, using just enough compression to capture diagnostic quality images. You are encouraged to communicate with the technologist at any time if you need to.
Gaddy, who has worked for Sharp for nearly 30 years, reassures patients: “Our highly trained and experienced technologists care about your comfort and will work with you to get through the exam as quickly and smoothly as possible.”
After the screening: awaiting the results
Once the screening is complete, you can get changed, swipe on some complimentary deodorant and proceed with your day. Know that the technologist will not be able to give you any information on the results of your exam, but a radiologist will read your mammogram in about a week. Official results will arrive via your online health portal (if your medical group offers one) as well as in the mail within 7 to 10 days. Sometimes, for baseline mammograms, the radiologist may request for you to return for additional imaging, especially if you have dense breast tissue.
Take the time to care for yourself
While a mammogram didn’t initially seem the most momentous way to ring in my 40s, through reflection and research I came to reconsider. Mammograms remain the best screening tool for breast cancer detection and staying on top of preventive care is truly one of the greatest gifts — birthday or otherwise — you can give yourself.
“Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a good reminder for women to be proactive about their own health care needs,” confirms Gaddy. “We are all busy these days, but October can be a time to renew our commitment to take care of ourselves too.”
Healthy adult preventive care guidelines state women ages 40 to 49 should discuss annual mammogram screenings with their doctor, and women ages 50 to 75 should plan for an annual mammogram screening every one or two years. When scheduling regular screening mammograms, your appointment should be at least one year and one day from your last annual screening.