By Donna Gregory Burch
For me, mammograms rate right up there with getting my teeth cleaned and giving up bread. I don’t enjoy having my annual mammogram, but I do it because mammography is still the best tool available for the early detection of breast cancer. I’d rather go through a few minutes of discomfort every year than risk losing my life to cancer because I didn’t catch it soon enough.
But as a woman with fibromyalgia and chronic pain, having some stranger shove my boobs one-by-one into what’s essentially a humongous vice can be downright uncomfortable – even painful. I know I’m not the only one who dreads it.
Since October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I thought it would be worthwhile to figure out if there’s anything women with fibromyalgia (or other pain conditions) can do to minimize the discomfort of mammography. I reach out to several breast imaging experts across the country and asked them to share their tips for less painful mammograms. Here’s their best advice…
Before your appointment
- When you make your appointment, tell the scheduler that you suffer from chronic pain and may require extra time for your visit.
- Ask if the imaging center has a certain technologist who is trained in working with chronic pain patients. I got lucky in 2014 and 2015 and received a technologist who also has fibromyalgia. It made a huge difference in my mammogram because she understood how fibromyalgia affects the body.
- If you find a technologist that you like, you can request that technologist for future appointments.
- If you’re pre-menopausal, don’t schedule your mammogram right before or during your menstrual cycle. “That’s when breasts are really tender already from the hormonal changes that occur before you’re about to menstruate,” said Dr. Sandhya Pruthi, associate professor of general internal medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “We tell them to wait 7-14 days [after the start of menstruation] when the hormonal changes are the least likely to bother you.”
- Prior to your appointment, “talk with the provider who manages [your] pain and let him or her know about [your] plan to get a mammogram, and see if that provider can offer some additional support or suggestions,” said Susan Brown, senior director of health education with Susan G. Komen, the world’s largest breast cancer organization.
- Your physician may suggest taking an over-the-counter (Tylenol, Advil, etc.) or prescription pain reliever before your appointment to help reduce discomfort during and after the procedure.
- “When you schedule your appointment, ask if you will be in a robe or a dressing cape,” said Cathy Wilson, vice president of operations with Solis Mammography – North Texas region. “Consider bringing a robe from home if you are concerned about the low temperature. Remember you will only need to remove your top, so be sure to wear a two-piece outfit.”
On appointment day
- Use relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation, before and during the procedure to help reduce stress and anxiety. The less stressed you are, the easier it will be for the tech to position you and get good images.
- It might sound weird, but consider bringing a friend. “Or better yet, have your friend get a mammogram, too,” Wilson said. “It is almost always more comforting and can often offer a great distraction.”
- “Communication is key,” Wilson said. “When you meet with your mammography technologist, communicate your condition. A well-educated, trained technologist will work with a patient to obtain a high-quality image while limiting the patient’s discomfort or pain. Explain to your mammography technologist that you may have to take longer than normal to allow for breaks in between compressions to recover.”
- Ask the tech if there’s anything that can done to minimize the discomfort of the procedure. Depending on your level of disability, you might consider asking if you can have your mammogram while seated.
- Some imaging centers offer the MammoPad, a thin, cotton pad that’s placed on the compression plate where your breast sits during the mammogram. This provides a little bit of cushion during the breast compression. You can find a local imaging center that uses MammoPad by visiting MammoPad.com.
- “Ask the tech to let [you] know when she is going to put the most compression on, so that [you] can anticipate it and sort of be braced for that,” Brown said. “Many machines now release compression as soon as the image is captured. The compression itself lasts just a few seconds, and then the compression is released.”
- Request a gradual compression of the breast instead of sudden compression. “For patients with fibromyalgia, if you use a very slow and gradual amount of compression, it tends to be much better tolerated by these patients,” said Dr. Biren Shah, director of breast imaging at VCU Massey Cancer Center in Richmond, Virginia. “That’s where you have to have a good mammography technologist who is willing to be patient and willing to work with the patient.”
According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 246,660 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed this year. More than 40,000 women and men will lose their lives to breast cancer.
Being a woman and over age 50 are the two biggest risk factors for developing breast cancer. Maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise and limiting one’s alcohol consumption reduce overall breast cancer risk.
No one looks forward to getting a mammogram – especially women who live with chronic pain – but it’s a necessary evil.
“Please don’t not have a mammogram because of concerns about the pain and discomfort,” Brown said. “All women are at risk, and having one condition doesn’t protect you from developing breast cancer.
Finding it early and getting good treatment is the best we can do today to make sure we get good outcomes.”
Visit Komen.org for the latest breast cancer screening guidelines.
Now it’s your turn! Do you have a tip for making mammography less painful? Share in the comments below!
Donna Gregory Burch was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2014 after several years of unexplained pain, fatigue and other symptoms. She covers news, treatments, research and practical tips for living better with fibromyalgia on her blog, FedUpwithFatigue.com. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter. Donna is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared online and in newspapers and magazines throughout Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. She lives in Delaware with her husband and their many fur babies.