Outsmart Mammogram Stress

Your next screening doesn't have to be scary. A few smart steps before, during, and after will leave you empowered, not petrified.

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Is it any wonder we feel uneasy about mammograms?

These screenings, while doing undeniable good for women as a whole, come with discomfort, inconvenience, and—oh, yeah—the possibility of a frightening diagnosis. That might explain why a recent review of 1.5 million medical claims found that only half of insured women over age 40 got screened every year, despite the fact that most doctors recommend annual mammograms. Don't let your next screening slip through the cracks.

Subdue the stress by following this advice.

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6 MONTHS OUT: Snag a prime slot
In a 2011 Kaiser Permanente survey of women who had avoided mammograms, 19 percent of those under age 60 explained that they simply had too little time for the test. Book a morning appointment so you can get in quickly and minimize anxious downtime in the waiting room. The date matters, too. If you're premenopausal, try to schedule your screening for the week after your period ends, when breasts are least tender. Finally, be sure to mention if you've had any type of breast surgery, says mammographer Dana Aragon, a spokesperson for the American Society of Radiologic Technologists. Implants require extra time for imaging, while scar tissue can look suspicious on an X-ray film. Alerting the center can reduce the odds of a false alarm.

1 MONTH OUT: Round up your records
If you've had mammograms performed at other imaging centers, call each facility and have your films transferred to the new center. This gives your radiologist a better understanding of what's normal (and not) for your breasts. For example, if your latest mammogram shows a benign mass and the radiologist is able to verify that it has been there for years, she can spare you the stress of a callback.

1 WEEK OUT: Ask about pain prevention
In the Kaiser Permanente survey, nearly 25 percent of mammogram skippers cited "too much pain." If that's your reason, ask your doctor about ways to reduce discomfort. She might advise measures such as temporarily avoiding caffeine (which can make breasts tender) or taking a pain reliever prior to your appointment.

THE NIGHT BEFORE : Choose a comfy outfit
There's no getting around the unpleasantness of taking off your top, but if you wear a two-piece outfit, you can stay in your regular clothes from the waist down. And because a mammogram is generally performed while a patient stands, it's best to wear sensible shoes that allow you to remain perfectly still while images are captured.

 

THE MORNING OF: Leave skin clean
After your shower, refrain from applying antiperspirant, perfume, lotion, or talcum powder to your underarms or breasts (or be prepared to remove it with a wet wipe before your appointment). "These products can leave a residue that interferes with the mammogram," Aragon says.

 

DURING: Don't expect answers
Technologists are trained to perform mammograms, not interpret them. Don't create anxiety for yourself by searching your mammographer's face for clues or asking her whether anything looks "off"—her silence doesn't mean she's trying to conceal bad news, Aragon says.

 

AFTER: Know that callbacks are common
Follow-up testing is not unusual. "In most cases, this is just to confirm the doctor's hunch that what he's seeing is harmless," Aragon says. Indeed, studies show that four out of five breast tumors are benign. If an abnormality does turn out to be malignant, your doctor will be ready with a plan of action. Breast cancer detected through routine mammography is often in the earliest, most treatable stages.

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