Life Update: My First Mammogram

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.)

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21 Comments

  1. Tina Jones
    December 20, 2021 / 4:47 pm

    Just had my last mammogram. But always kept them up. So important for early diagnosis. Now at an age where I no longer have ‘boobs’ but now have ‘knockers’. Had a few hiccups ( nothing nasty) in the past, but all was dealt with quickly. Always good to see people in Ruth’s position to emphasize the important to have a quick squash that could save a lot of heart ache. Good woman!

  2. Rebecca
    December 19, 2021 / 3:19 pm

    Thank you for sharing this important post and your experience. My mum died three years ago from breast cancer, unfortunately the tumour was deep in her breast tissue (she would have unlikely felt it) and it had already spread to her bones and brain by the time she was diagnosed. The timing of the routine mammogram screenings, which is every three years I think, unfortunately missed it at the right time.

    Coincidentally I felt a lump earlier this year and given my family history didn’t hesitate going to see my GP who was wonderful and very reassuring. I was referred to my local hospital for an ultrasound and biopsy in the two week pathway. After three very anxious weeks my result fortunately came back as a benign fibroadenoma, however I will need to continue to monitor for any changes. I am glad I did it and would urge anyone to be wary if you notice any changes in pain, appearance or new lump. Also don’t be afraid to get a second opinion if you feel unsatisfied or unassured following an appointment. Most importantly please don’t put it off.

  3. Trimperley
    December 15, 2021 / 11:52 pm

    I went for an NHS mammogram earlier this year and the trailer and equipment were brand new being used for the first time that day. I am a total prude but the radiographer was very professional and there was no awkwardness. All was well which was a relief as my mother died from breast cancer. For reasons that we never got to know she never went for screening. Over time she began to complain that she could not open the garage door or lift the iron because she was in pain. I never twigged that she might have breast cancer. Eventually she admitted that she had a lump in her breast but by then the cancer had spread to her spine and liver. This was my second mammogram. I was incredibly nervous about my first one and a relative insisted on coming with me to make sure that I went to the first. He dropped me off by the steps and stayed in the car as even pre pandemic they didn’t allow men in the trailer.

    So well done Ruth for tackling the problem head on. I don’t begrudge anyone going private when their health at risk, particularly someone who is self employed.

    To anyone out there who is ignoring a lump or hoping it will go away screw your courage to the sticking point and tell someone and get yourself checked.

    • December 16, 2021 / 10:09 am

      That is so sad! I once went to an Estee Lauder Breast cancer month press day and a cancer doctor was speaking. He said that so many women from older generations had died because of not wanting to go and be checked. I mean it must happen in our generation too and younger but maybe there was more of a stigma?

      • Trimperley
        December 16, 2021 / 10:32 pm

        Yes I think part of it was that she was ashamed to have breast cancer. The late Evelyn Lauder through her charity did a lot to change attitudes and I always try to buy one of their pink products to support the charity when available.

  4. December 14, 2021 / 5:06 pm

    I had my first mammogram at the age of 38 because there was an area of concern and my mother had breast cancer (it was 20 years ago and she had the all clear after 5). It is definitely an uncomfortable, but not painful experience.

    • December 14, 2021 / 10:24 pm

      Thanks Anne. It’s all highly subjective but most people seem to agree that it’s uncomfortable but there’s no actual pain. x

  5. Justine McGrath
    December 13, 2021 / 7:48 pm

    Hi Ruth
    I just wanted to commend you on writing such an informative and yet also entertaining article. Not sure how you managed it but you did!
    Your point about avoiding health issues really rang true with me. My mother had breast cancer. After my booster jab on Saturday, I had a pain under my armpit. They say you can get this – lymph nodes reacting or something as a potential side effect, but I immediately began to worry that it was a lump and thought I have to stop putting off going for a mammogram as I have recently turned 50. So I wanted to thank you for highlighting such an important issue and for providing us all with the proverbial kick-up the ass we need! P.S. If you haven’t considered it, I hope one day you will consider writing a book. I love your style of writing and would read pretty much anything you wrote!

    • December 14, 2021 / 10:25 pm

      Thank you Justine. It’s interesting you mentioning the jab, a few people on insta DMd me with the same when I mentioned my armpit pressure! Maybe mine WAS a weird effect from the jab? I have no idea! x

  6. Karen
    December 12, 2021 / 1:03 pm

    Thanks for documenting this.
    I watched Nadine’s Instagram video and booked too, for similar pain you describe.
    They found an area with ‘low suspicion of malignancy’, so now waiting for a biopsy in the public system (I am not in the UK)
    I am not so worried, now I know the facts. But glad I am now in the system to get it checked.

    • December 13, 2021 / 9:29 am

      Brilliant to know you booked in after Nadine’s video, I agree that knowing the facts can make things less worrying. Often it’s the fear of the unknown that’s the worst isn’t it? x

  7. Lizzy
    December 11, 2021 / 10:27 am

    Hi Ruth hope you don’t mind me commenting on this post. I am a radiographer although I’m not trained in mammography. I’m so pleased that you had such a positive experience and that you’ve written about it in such an encouraging eloquent way.
    However, I feel slightly ‘sad’ that it wasn’t the NHS experience that you wrote about as there are many people who simply could not afford that amount of money for breast screening, but yet as you rightly said, concerns would be equally treated by the NHS as the private sector.
    I understand the coincidence of being offered this service but just wonder if you had gone for the NHS appt if you may have reached a wider audience.
    Clearly all this is totally your choice and none of my business but just wanted to comment from an NHS health care professional’s POV.
    Love Lizzy

    • December 11, 2021 / 11:25 am

      Thank you Lizzy! I welcome your input. The main point of the post was to share the experience of the mammogram itself and not to ignore anything out of the ordinary; the One Welbeck opportunity is secondary as I’m sure the actual physical experience of having a mammogram would not differ massively!

    • Gillian Pidler
      December 13, 2021 / 2:01 pm

      As a very satisfied NHS customer I would like to add my view in here as I recently had my 3rd I think mammo on the NHS. I’m 53, just and in September I had mine done in the van in the local Asda car park.
      I turned up slightly early as we’d done some shopping first and was welcomed in by 2 lovely ladies. Details checked I was taken right through by the most charming lady I’ve ever met for boob squishing. Her name was Lovely which was very fitting. She told me that when I told her she was a sheer joy to be taken care of by.
      She did the deed, very sweet, explaining everything as she went despite me having been before and I was done in less than 15 mins start to finish. She checked the films and said they looked great before bidding me adieu.
      As someone with a chronic illness I rely heavily on the NHS (there’s no way I could afford private) and have had nothing but great care from them.
      In fact thinking back to my last mammo I did actually get called back. The centre I went to was amazing, NHS, and they took such great care of me. Everyone from the lady who did the scan to the one who made me coffee and to the doctor and nurse in the ultrasound room who did that scan and ensured me that the only reason I’d been called back was because the person who’d done the previous one had gotten more breast tissue this time and they wanted to check out what they’d not seen in the previous one to that, I think that’s what they said, it was a while ago, but all was great.
      Of course thanks go to Ruth for a great article on attending a mammogram and how important these wellness checks are to our health. I’m so glad you got the all clear and wish anyone else awaiting results on this post all the best with their results etc. Look after yourselves ladies and always, always get those checks.

      • December 14, 2021 / 10:27 pm

        Thank you so much for this Gillian, and thank goodness for the NHS. x

    • Sarah
      December 15, 2021 / 3:04 pm

      Absolutely agree, I feel like I need to save up to get all my miles checked or breasts looked at and it makes me feel desperate.

      • Sarah
        December 15, 2021 / 3:06 pm

        Moles!!! Miles I’m not that old yet?! Haaa

  8. Sabrina
    December 11, 2021 / 8:28 am

    I also had my mammogram and ultrasound this week. I am 42 and have been having them yearly for a few years now because my beautiful grandmother had breast cancer, hence my breast specialist is firm on checking me yearly. I too have dense breast tissue hence its imperative to do yearly checks. Yep its not the most enjoyable experience however its so important. Ruth i’m glad all is ok with your results.

    • Jane B.
      December 11, 2021 / 3:20 pm

      Thank you so much for documenting your experience, Ruth. I’ve been having mammograms since I was 35( I’m now 62) because I have fibrocystic breasts and dense tissue. I also have breast exams every 6 months after needing a biopsy a couple of years ago (it all turned out fine). Again, thank you for putting this out there and hopefully it will encourage other women to be proactive with this aspect of their health.

      • December 11, 2021 / 5:42 pm

        Thank you Jane, I’m so glad everything turned out fine. x

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