Shattering the Mammogram Myth: It Really Does Hurt

by Teronda Seymore


As I sat in the waiting room listening for my name, another patient emerged from the imaging area with a frenzied look, gripping her right breast.

“Aw it isn’t that bad,” I said to her.

I thought she was a wuss to grimace at a little pressure. But who was I to tell another woman she didn’t hurt? I spoke from the perspective of someone who didn’t need pain medication to recover from a surgery. And I experienced a painless first mammogram.

It was six months prior. I was referred to a breast specialist because I was prone to benign cysts and I had a family history of breast cancer. My mother, who was the first in the family to be diagnosed with the disease, succumbed to metastasized breast cancer at the young age of 46. My recommendation was to be screened at 35.

A second appointment within the same year was merely a precaution. We were monitoring a cyst that was too deep to aspirate without any discomfort. I had no reason to believe this visit would be any different from the last one despite that woman’s reaction.

“That was the worst,” she replied as she left.

I glanced around the waiting room thinking it was a good thing no mammogram virgins were present because she would’ve surely scared them all. Even I had heard horror stories from the 50-year-olds and up ranging from the nurse twists your breasts into weird angles to she slams the plates down on your breasts. But I dismissed those tales as nothing but ridiculous exaggerations. Mere myths.

I was still eager when the nurse called my name. “That’s me!” I said. I was calm from the dressing room to the examination room until I posed in front of the mammography machine. That’s when I realized this nurse was one of those technicians. One everyone tried to warn me about. One who manipulated and juggled breasts like they were indestructible objects. One who confused the mammography machine with an industrial panini press.

Ditto to what the other patient said. That ish hurt.

I wasn’t quite sure if she wanted to flip my left breast upside down and then level it or not. But she needed to know what she tried to accomplish was an impossibility. And she needed to quit tightening those plates before something burst and I’m not talking about implants, either.

“It doesn’t flatten,” I informed her. Some breasts are rather dense.

“I have to tighten it so we can see everything,” she replied. That translated to everything that probably wouldn’t even be detected for another fifteen years under a “normal” mammogram. The radiologist later pointed out a few white specks on the film, or calcifications, but explained they didn’t warrant concern.

Nurse Ratched slowly walked back to the computer where she controlled and captured the images.

“Raise your chin.”

Raise my chin? It wasn’t until that moment that I realized my body had morphed into the yogic cat  pose – chin-to-chest, hunched back – only I was standing.

“I can’t!” I fired back. Any movement, including breathing, only worsened the pain.

We repeated the entire process in multiple positions, not because I didn’t cooperate but because abnormalities such as cysts required it. So she said. No one advised me of this tidbit in advance.

I left the hospital in as bad of a mood as I assumed the nurse was in. Follow up in six months my ass. My poor breast throbbed for three days.

But then there are those statistics: About 1 out of 8 of us will develop breast cancer in our lifetime; Seventeen percent won’t survive. And those of us who fall in the high-risk category definitely aren’t in the position to forgo regular screenings, not to mention breast cancer is more prevalent in black women than white women within my age group.

So what will I be doing from now until forever? Performing those self-exams and shuddering in the waiting room every six to 12 months. But it would be so lovely if mammograms didn’t involve crushing sensitive breast tissue.

Washington, DC transplant Teronda Seymore is a writer and an undercover Twitter addict whose work has also appeared online at xoJane. Follow her @skinnydcwriter.

  • march pisces

    ok i just died laughing. why? —->>>>”Raise my chin? It wasn’t until that moment that I realized my body had morphed into the yogic cat pose – chin-to-chest, hunched back – only I was standing.” this is hilarious b/c i remember being placed in this position and didn’t realize, it is the cat pose. when i find myself in this pose in another week i’m gone try not to laugh, but i will think of this post to help lighten the mood of even having to be there for a six month follow up.

    thanks for the post!! :-)

  • zyasia

    I think you need to have another tech next time. my mom has been getting mammograms for years now and has only had it hurt once. unfortunately, not all techs understand that having good bedside manner is essential.

  • rena215

    Sounds like she was on a power trip. You should have reported her.

  • stardancer2008

    I had my first mammogram done by a lovely tech who was trying her level best not to hurt me. It was still painful, though. You should have reported that tech; some people just aren’t good in professions when it comes to having compassion for others. Most of those nuts end up in the healthcare fields!

    And death to that man who decided that smashing breasts between x-ray plates is the best way to check for abnormalities.

  • Florence

    There are other, even more critical, myths about mammography that women should know about (read the e-book “The Mammogram Myth: The Independent Investigation Of Mammography The Medical Profession Doesn’t Want You To Know About” by Rolf Hefti). Like, they are much more likely to severely harm you than ever greatly benefit you…

  • Oshh

    My mammograms have not hurt. Uncomfortable but no pain.

  • m

    I have just learned about MammoPads – foam layers that adhere to the metal plates and reduce much of the pain. Every woman should insist on having these in place. Not yet available in Canada. Canadian women – contact all Cancer Societies you can, plus your local screening facility. Every time organizations ask for donations, ask right back – what are you doing to make mammograms less painful? Are you doing anything to get MammoPad approved by Health Canada???
    search on mammopad dot com for more info.

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