I thought I knew what to expect… until I didn’t. I turned 40, and I scheduled my first mammogram. My friends who had gone before me told me how nice the experience is, all things considered — think fuzzy bathrobes, pretty waiting rooms and lots of kind and caring nurses. They were right about all those things, even the fact that the actual mammogram didn’t hurt. I felt prepared and checked another thing off my #thisis40 list. What I wasn’t ready for was the phone call telling me I needed to come back for more images. I was completely unprepared for the rollercoaster I was about to ride. I’m not the first, nor will I be the last to get a call back for an additional mammogram, but as they say, you can never be too prepared. Below is a breakdown of what to expect when you get the call to come back.
Asymmetry: When the nurse called with my results, she mentioned that the doctor discovered an asymmetry in my breast. I thought I understood the definition to be there was a difference or imbalance in my breast size and/or tissue density. Turns out that it can also mean there is a mass. I didn’t realize that my asymmetry was localized to one mass or spot on the image of my left breast. The whole time I was thinking it was my silly right boob, you know the one that has always been a little larger and made you look a little wonky. You can imagine the shock when I arrived at my second appointment. That’s when the tears started to fall. As the nurse “who had seen more boobs than anything else in her lifetime” told me, asymmetries pop up all the time in mammograms. She looked me straight in the eye and told me not to worry until the doctor tells you to worry. Too late. Not only was I worried, but I was also knee deep in unchartered territory.
Dense Breast Tissue: I had the double whammy when it comes to mammograms. My pictures revealed asymmetry and dense breast tissue. After breastfeeding and pumping (anyone else having flashbacks of that awful machine as it whined and literally sucked the perkiness out of my boobs?!?) with both my children, I never thought anyone would describe my breasts as dense. This simply means the breast tissue is composed mostly of milk ducts, milk glands and supportive tissue as opposed to fatty tissue. Anywhere between 40–50 percent of women have dense breasts, so it’s common — but it does make it more difficult to interpret a mammogram. This alone could be a reason for a second mammogram.
Round 2… or 3 or 4: If you go back in for a second scan, the nurse will only take images of the suspected issue. In my case, the nurse took an additional three images of one breast. The angles were different, but it didn’t hurt any more or less than the first appointment. Most first-round mammogram results are given the day after the images are taken. Thankfully at the call-back appointment, images are read in real time by a radiologist. After reviewing the images, the doctor will either say the issue is resolved or order another set of scans, like in my case! Obviously, this can be upsetting because you know a doctor is seeing a possible red flag for breast cancer. I strongly suggest you bring a spouse/partner or friend with you to the mammogram. The worst part of my entire experience was being alone in that pretty waiting room. I tried to call my husband, but I was so upset I couldn’t even talk. I just sobbed. Thank goodness for his calming texts and those of several friends who I texted in a panic — they truly walked me off the ledge that morning.
What if the radiologist still doesn’t like what they see after a third set of images?? You get an ultrasound. This is where my scary mammogram story ended. Just like when you were pregnant, the medical sonographer pours warm gel on the area and runs a wand over the tissue. Turns out the mass they kept seeing in my images was a mole I’ve had my entire life. This mole had even been marked with a special sticker to avoid being interpreted as a red flag but for whatever reason it still was. But if the ultrasound still appears fishy, the next step is typically to perform a biopsy — luckily, I didn’t have to go that far!
One thing to note if this is your first mammogram, the radiologist has no baseline image to compare and will err on the side of caution ordering more images than risk missing something. Even though I had a stressful morning, I am so grateful that the radiologist took the time to be 100-percent confident that I am breast cancer free. I only experienced a fraction of the fear that a woman with breast cancer faces, and I am forever changed. You can’t control what’s going to happen, but it will pay off you walk in prepared.