A few weeks ago I went for my first mammogram. You can tell it was my first because I made the rookie error of wearing a dress to attend it, which is why I am stood there in my trainers and pants with a dressing gown tied around my waist.
This wasn’t a routine checkup for me. I was still 40 (I turned 41 a couple of weeks ago, just after the appointment) and NHS generally screen women between the ages of 50 and 70. But I had been to the doctor with a strange pain – or more of a pressure – in my armpit and down the side of my breast. She wasn’t worried but I really was, it was out of the ordinary for me, so she referred me to a consultant at the hospital who also wasn’t worried but thought there might be a Fibroadenoma (non-cancerous breast tumour that’s apparently quite common) and wanted to schedule a mammogram and a scan to check it out.
Now in one of the biggest coincidences to happen to me this decade, about two hours after I left the hospital the lovely PR for One Welbeck (a private healthcare centre in London) emailed asking whether I would be interested, in a journalistic sense, in visiting their breast screening centre for a mammogram. How mad is that? I’m told by one person that I’ll be booked in for a mammogram in Somerset and a couple of hours later a totally different, completely unrelated person invites me to write about a breast screening service in London! I thought that I was on Candid Camera.
But it was a genuine offer; One Welbeck’s breast screening centre has the most advanced technology in the UK and they had some spaces available for press to visit the centre and write about the facilities and services on offer. It costs £259 for the main option there which is the “3D Breast Screening Mammogram with Radiologist Report” and I thought that this sounded like a very useful service for women who might not be offered screening on the NHS or who wanted or needed a faster appointment.
And so off I went to London. I have to say, I went a lot less fearfully than I would have done, because I had already watched Nadine Baggott’s Instagram video on her mammogram appointment and it had completely put my mind at rest about it. The strange thing was, when I watched Nadine document her mammogram I had no idea I’d be needing one so soon! It was one of those things that I watched, processed and sort of mentally shelved for later, thinking I’m glad it’s not that bad, I’ll remember that for when the time comes.
And that’s partly the reason I’m giving so much detail here, because I do think that if you can help out a few people by sharing your own thoughts then that’s no bad thing. I think it’s so important not to bury your head in the sand when it comes to your health; I’ve been known to do this in the past because I am quite scared of anything test or hospital-related and so if this post resonates with someone like me then I think it’ll be worth me having written it!
I must say that the experience at One Welbeck was really great: everyone working there seemed geared to make the experience as relaxing and reassuring as possible. And not just for me, in case you’re wondering whether there was some sort of special treatment; all of the women in the waiting area seemed very calm and one even started chatting to me about how amazing the service was there. She raved so much about it that I started to suspect she was a plant, but actually I think it was because she was just so relieved that the experience wasn’t what she had feared it would be. Obviously there are going to be people attending the clinic who are there for routine appointments, but there would also be people who were there to check something urgently and who would – understandably – be incredibly anxious. I think that this woman was in the latter group; she’d already had a mammogram and a scan and a biopsy and was awaiting results on that. But she said that the care and compassion with which she had been treated had really taken her aback.
And I can agree with her sentiments; I felt completely at ease, unrushed and above all, cared for. The mammogram was quick, absolutely 100% painless (the pressure from the scanning machine is weird but it didn’t hurt at all, one bit*) and the ultrasound I subsequently needed was arranged immediately. I was in and out with the all-clear within half an hour. More importantly I was in and out with the all-clear and armed with some very important information: I have very dense breast tissue. I had been told this by my doctor and the consultant but neither had really explained the implications of this so I’d done my mental shelving again and stored the info for a later date. In actual fact it’s info that I need right now because apparently denser breast tissue makes it more difficult to feel small lumps or spot tumours on a Mammogram. (There’s more info at cancer.org on this. It’s why I then had to have the ultrasound follow-up. Dense tissue shows as white on a mammogram but then so do tumours, so it makes it more difficult to see an issue.)
I would never had known this had I not grabbed the bull by its proverbial horns and seen my doctor, asked to see the consultant and then gone for my breast scan. Thankfully all was clear, but it was recommended by the radiologist that I be scanned yearly because of the difficulty with spotting smaller tumours in denser breast tissue and it’s something that I will most definitely now do. I feel armed with relevant, important information about my own body and that is highly motivating; the fear of developing an awful disease is really high up on my list of worries in life, but I feel that there is a small, comforting element of control I can take back by keeping up with things like smear tests and breast checks and any other screening I might be offered.
So the aim of this post is to jog along anyone reading who might have a nagging concern with a lump or visual abnormality to go and get it checked. I tend to have this overriding fear of “bothering” doctors unnecessarily with my ailments, but more often than not when I finally go and see them my gut instinct was correct. (See: massive sinus infection that I lived with for about fifty thousand weeks.)
*A bit more info on the mammogram process itself, which I’m putting down at the end in case people don’t want to read about my boobs being essentially flattened into pancakes and then released. I’m being completely honest when I say that for me there was no pain. But it was uncomfortable. You basically have to drop your boobs (one at a time) onto a plate of glass and have them pressed until they’re essentially flat.
Re the plate of glass thing, if you’ve ever photocopied your breasts (to be frank if you had an office job in the nineties and didn’t photocopy some part of your anatomy then I’m highly disappointed in you) then it’s just like that but without the searing heat of the photocopier light going over an intimate area of your body.
You have to completely relax, which is obviously easy when you’re semi-naked and a lady you’ve only just met is placing your breast onto a piece of machinery, and you have to sort of slump yourself over it so that your shoulders aren’t tense. Then the other part of the scanner comes down to flatten the breast out and you start to feel a pressure which builds up and up and feels incredibly weird and then comes to a sort of climax (not that kind) where you think your boob couldn’t possibly squash more and then poof! It releases.
If I felt any pain at all it was actually where my ribcage was pressed against the machine. But it was fleeting, like the sort of pain you might get when you turn around in your car seat and lean into the back and you awkwardly press against the central console. (Bizarre comparison, don’t know where that came from!) And my radiographer, Miss Johanna Kelsey, was very calming and reassuring and talked everything through in very simple terms so that I didn’t feel scared or worried, just sort of…bemused.
My default state these days. Ha.
(I was very lucky to be invited to One Welbeck without charge because they are raising awareness of their services but I am absolutely going to return every year as a fully paid-up client as I am not eligible for NHS checks at this age. You don’t need private healthcare or insurance to book with One Welbeck, it’s a one-time fee of £259 for the 3D mammogram. Fees differ for other services such as ultrasound or biopsy.)