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Breast Cancer Aware: Mammogram tale

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, helping to promote understanding and action across the world. Every 45 minutes someone dies from breast cancer in the UK (Breast Cancer Now). The good news is that of the over 55,000 people who get breast cancer, 76% survive breast cancer for ten years or more. (Cancer Research UK)

As you get older, the risk of breast cancer increases, and so women aged 50 – 71 years are invited for screening every three years.

Most national screening services were suspended March – July of this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The breast cancer screening service is now up and running again, but will take a while to roll out completely.

If you have received a letter inviting you to attend for a mammogram, you will find a few changes in procedure, to provide maximum protection against virus transmission. I went recently for a routine screening in Northamptonshire, and this was my experience.

Our car crawled around the car park of the sprawling medical centre, looking for the elusive mobile breast screening unit. A long queue snaked around a corner of a building, and I hoped that wasn’t one that I would be joining. My appointment letter supposedly included a map “overleaf” but didn’t, so we were relying on satnav, not ideal when trying to track down a mobile unit. Due to Covid-19 disrupting the breast screening schedules, we had travelled slightly further than usual, to a different site, and weren’t sure exactly where the unit might be parked.

I spotted a white metal box end on to the road, with steps leading up to a side door. “That might be it,” I said to my husband, who was doing the driving crawl. I got out of the car and hustled toward the white box. A woman in medical outfit appeared at the top of the steps. Thumbs up to my husband, and he disappeared to try and find somewhere to wait in the overcrowded car park. I positioned myself at the bottom of the steps as instructed, put my facemask on, and readied myself for my mammogram.

My appointment was for, very precise. ‘Please arrive at your appointment time’ – no arriving early, to avoid any queues or crossover of patients. Only one patient in the unit at a time, different from previous appointments where three or four women might be in the unit at various stages of the process - filling in forms, disrobing, having the scan, getting dressed again, departing. This time it was just me and the mammography practitioner (the woman operator of the mammogram x-ray machine).

The process was very Covid-aware, starting with the wearing of a facemask and the sanitising of hands at entry to the unit. I was beckoned straight into the machine room, and answered the obligatory questions - checking my identity, address and mammogram history – while standing to one side of the machine. The operator then invited me to disrobe “top half only”, and put my clothes on the disinfected chair beside me.

“The plate will be a bit cold, because its just been cleaned and sanitised”, she warned me. Although having a mammogram definitely wouldn’t rate as a fun morning activity, it is at least over quickly. All of the operators that I have come across during my many years of having mammograms have been friendly, efficient and speedy.

“Relax your shoulders, hunch forward slightly and relax your muscles. It will be more comfortable. Now, when I tell you, take a small breath in and hold while I take a picture. Don’t move! Breathe in, hold!”

I count the held breath “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6”. Holding my breath while wearing a facemask seems much harder, for some reason.

“OK, you can breathe now”. I take a deep breath in, thinking that for many older women that held breath pause would be a challenge. One of the life benefits of Dru Yoga, working with the breath.

Four times, four different positions. Left breast front, right breast front. Left breast sideways on, right breast sideways on.

“I need to make sure that I get an image of as much breast tissue as possible, otherwise we might have to call you back. Better to get it all first time”.

I heartily agree.

All done. I start putting my bra back on, struggling with the clasp as the operator tells me that the images will be examined and I will receive a letter shortly with the results.

“The post seems to be back to normal, so it will probably be within two weeks. We don’t like to keep people waiting any longer than we can help.”

I finish getting dressed, am asked to sanitise my hands again, and exit down a different set of steps, direct from the examination room. Spotting my husband, parked up on a muddy verge, the only space available, I knock on the passenger side window. He starts, surprised away from his electronic book.

“That was quick”. Less than 20 minutes, from the moment that I stood at the foot of the steps, waiting.

“Time for coffee”, I say. “And a slice of cake. Got to be some reward for getting naked and having squashed boobs at this time of day.”



Michelle Helstrip

Founder of DRUVA

Analysis of data concerning early vs. late detection


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