Latest technology makes painful mammograms a thing of the past

October 29, 2012 9:39:26 AM

Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]


Most women have heard the horror stories, passed around the dinner table and growing in magnitude until a simple diagnostic procedure begins to take on the shadings of an epic nightmare.  


Raise your hand if you've heard this before: A woman stands shivering in a doctor's office, watching the minutes tick by as she waits for her mammogram. She eases her breast onto an ice-cold metal plate and tries not to cry as another icy slab of steel proceeds to smash her breast into the shape of a Saturday morning pancake.  


It is misery, times two. Or is it?  


Sherry Monaghan, 37, is the lead mammogram technician at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle, and she has more than a decade of experience screening for breast cancer. Over the years, she has seen mammograms become faster, more accurate and more comfortable than ever.  


Though she is young, she has a bit of first-hand experience. When she was 29, she discovered a lump in her breast. She was terrified. And suddenly, her job was very personal.  


Today's mammograms have little in common with those your mother or grandmother may have experienced, she says.  


A soft, disposable breast cushion pad -- similar to memory foam -- keeps the compression plates warm and cuts down on pain as the plates are squeezed together. It also helps position the breast for quicker, more accurate testing.  


The X-ray, now digital, takes around 30 seconds per breast. Four images are made, giving top and side views as well as views of the lymph nodes.  


Monaghan can see the results in real-time, without having to leave the room to develop film. If anything seems abnormal, she consults one of the two in-house radiologists, and an appointment is made for further testing or biopsy. 


Baptist has offered digital mammography for three years, and Monaghan said though the test is more expensive now -- costing around $300 -- the improvements are worth the expense. Abnormalities that once were missed are now caught sooner.  


In her case, her lump turned out to be a fibroadenoma, a benign tumor. But now, that first mammogram serves as her base, allowing doctors to chart changes over time.  


Women are advised to begin having yearly mammograms when they turn 40. Women with risk factors like a family history of breast cancer may begin having mammograms sooner.  


But many either postpone or skip their screenings, fearing pain. It can be a deadly decision.  


"So many women have had a bad experience," Monaghan said. "I've had women tell me stories about being bruised. A lot of them just have horror stories." 


But the new equipment makes it possible to see the breast more clearly, making pain a thing of the past, she said, and there are things women can do to further improve comfort levels and accuracy.  


Because breasts are typically painful the week before menstruation, it is best to schedule mammograms at least 10 days after the period begins.  


Many people also believe it helps to cut down or eliminate caffeine the week before a mammogram, and taking an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen before and after the procedure may help as well.  


Try not to use any deodorants, lotions or powders as these may affect the test, causing artifacts in the imaging and sometimes generating false positives.  


The most important thing is to take responsibility for your own health.  


"I've had ladies skip a year or two, and it's easy to do," Monaghan said. "We're so busy taking care of everybody else. It's just one of those fun things that, as ladies, we need to do." 


She sees an average of 450 women a month and around 10 to 12 men each year. Because of the intimacy of the procedure, she gets to know her patients well, seeing them year after year, through babies and grand-babies, weddings and deaths.  


She said she loves her job, because she loves having the opportunity to make other women feel comfortable about cancer.  


"It can be heartbreaking, and it can be very rewarding," she said. "I get ladies that cry; I've cried with patients. You hug, you praise the Lord, you develop trust. I might not know them personally, but we form a relationship. I'm not just taking a picture; I'm screening them for cancer. Those 20 minutes can save their lives."

Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.