JACKSONVILLE, Fla – A quarter of a million new invasive breast cancer cases are diagnosed every year. But, a 15-minute screening can detect cancer -- or just alert doctors that something is suspicious and needs a closer look. Mammograms are typically recommended for women at the age of 40 but some will wait or even skip the screening out of fear. I wanted to walk women through the process it to take some of the fear out of a screening that could save a life in just minutes.
Admittedly, this was a little bit much for me obviously -- being exposed and getting a mammogram on television -- but if it saves one life or encourages one woman to get a mammogram, then it's wort it.
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 70’s which is really a blessing because it was stage zero. She's taking Tamoxifen and doing well. When I told my mom I was doing this, and that I was nervous, she said. "Melanie, you just do it and everything's going to be fine. And if it's not, that's a blessing in itself because then you'll know."
So that's the back story as to why I decided to publicly get my first mammogram. The camera was a distraction for what I was about to do. I was more nervous about the unknown and that doctors would be able to tell me if there was something suspicious in just a matter of minutes.
The screening process at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center starts with answering some questions on a tablet. These were more important than just medical history for me: They revealed hidden risks that I would learn later.
Then, it's time to prep for the mammogram. I am asked to undress from the waist up. I answer a few more questions and then a mammography technician explains to me what's next.
"You're going to stand here. I'm going to position you. As I’m positioning you, this paddle will come down and compress on you. I'm not trying to hurt you, but the better compression we get, the less radiation to your breast and the better we can see through your breast tissue," the tech explained to me.
This is what I heard is the uncomfortable part of a mammogram -- what some women have described as down-right painful. The tech takes four different images of my breast. The good news: It was faster than I imagined, only taking a few minutes.
The process was less invasive than I had envisioned. I was mostly covered except for the breast being imaged. Before I knew it, my first mammogram was over.
Even though I've done a number of stories on mammograms before, I really was shocked as to how easy it was. But the challenge isn’t the screening itself, it’s the waiting and not knowing if there’s anything wrong. The mammography tech said many patients want to know right away if she sees something, but it's the radiologist who interprets the film. That’s where the waiting comes in.
Shortly after my screening, I met with Radiologist Dr. Mary Alderman. She's kind, passionate about mammograms and the screening process, and easy to understand.
"I have good news that your mammogram looks beautiful, it’s absolutely normal,” explained Alderman. “Yay, good news."
I hugged her. That was my first reaction. It was my first mammogram and she tells me how important the screening is.
"It's very accurate, especially when you have prior films for comparison. That allows greater sensitivity to be able to tell that everything is the same,” Alderman explained. “Everyone's a little different, like your fingerprints, but when you we what's normal for you in the next year and hasn't changed."
My first mammogram is now building a history that will be compared from year to year. If there are changes, we can react to that.
Now back to those questions I answered when I first arrived. How I answered those questions are part of the story, too. All that information is put into a software program to assess my risk for developing breast cancer in the future.
"Your score was 31 percent. So, that would suggest that there's something in there that's elevating your risk above the general population. That doesn't mean that we want to panic, but it means we want to pay attention to that and maybe investigate it further," Alderman explained to me.
I will follow up with a genetic counselor, but now I know. And, like my mom said, “Knowing is a blessing.”
I do want to point out that for the initial screening, you don't meet with the radiologist unless there's a necessary follow-up. I met with Dr. Alderman for the purpose of the story -- to show you the entire process. She says patients typically get their results in just a few days. If they're normal, the results come in the mail. But, if there's a concern, you'll get a phone call.