Please don’t make me

It’s time for another mammogram, and I really don’t want to go back there.

Woman taking a mammogram examinationThree years ago I had my first mammogram. I’d been dreading it. But my gran had lived through breast cancer – discovered in 1962 aged 64, mastectomy, lived until 92. My mother had it too, aged 58, lumpectomy, and lived to 82. So I thought I’d better go and get it done.

I was dreading it because from my teenage years to my 40s, I’d had the kind of breasts which stung with pain if they were so much as accidentally nudged. I could only do sport with them strapped down and immobilised. The idea of sticking them in a kind of scanning sandwich toaster made me feel faint. And I worried that if I did faint while standing up, I’d be stuck there dangling from one of them.

Don’t be daft, I told myself. Everyone gets through it. It’s over in no time, and it can’t be that bad. So off I went.

The woman running the clinic was great. Very practical, helpful and calming. Top marks to her.

But I’m afraid it was just as bad as I’d originally imagined, and worse. Could I sit down? No. Did I faint? Not quite. But I had to lie of the floor with my legs up to recover from the dizziness between each bout.

I find it hard to believe that this kind of trauma doesn’t cause breast cancer.

Before I’d been there I could tell myself I was just being silly, and that it wasn’t going to be all that bad.

Now, I know what it’s like and I don’t want to do it again. I am less afraid of an operation than I am of that machine of torture.

Look, I know I’m being irrational, and I would love to hear from people who don’t feel this way. But try as I might, I cannot – yet – overcome the fear of the pain. Maybe if they’ll let me down a triple gin and tonic first, I might be able to stand it. Or if I could have one of those horse tranquillisers they give you before an operation. The kind that stop you caring about anything at all. Maybe.

Because I’ve had another letter. It’s time to do it again, and I’m poised to refuse.

I’m not hiding from cancer. I’m not afraid of getting a bad result. I just don’t want the test. I regularly do the checking, prodding and squashing myself to see if I can find anything out of the ordinary. I should say that post-menopause, I can now run for a bus with no pain whatever. It was only because my breasts had got over their painfulness that the medical people got anywhere near the first mammogram at all.

I eat my greens. I don’t smoke, never did. I hardly drink. I’m not overweight (obesity is a cause, or certainly a correlation), I exercise, and as stress is a cause I do a load of yoga and I’ve learned to take things more calmly.

I read that if you have sex more than once a month it raises levels of the “happiness hormones” oxytocin and DHEA which help to prevent breast cancer.

(I also read that unprotected sex – with just the one person, stable relationship and all that – is best, but I can’t find the reference.) The other half is very helpful here.

But do I go, or do I remove the stress that thinking about this is causing me, and just tell myself I never have to do it again?

I’ve also read that if men had to slam their bollocks in a sandwich toaster to get scanned for testicular cancer, they’d soon invent a better machine. So please can we campaign for a way make it less horrific?

What do you do?

Sarah McCartney

About Sarah McCartney

I’m a writer, perfumer and yoga teacher, and I like sharing what I know.

  • Linda Booth

    Thanks for a very interesting article Sarah. I always remember when my Mother’s mammogram was due. She would get so stressed about it and it would make her ill with worry. There’s no breast cancer history in our family and none of the other oestrogen dominant cancers either – bowel and prostrate.

    When my mammogram appointment came through I decided not to proceed with it. I’d already decided this years ago. I eat healthy, I drink very little alcohol, and I exercise. I also examine my breasts on a monthly basis and have done since the age of 16 (I’m now 54).

    I have other annual tests and I am confident that these would pick up any ‘issues’ in my breasts, as well as the rest of my body.

    Linda Booth

  • Linda Booth

    Oops. Meant prostate, not prostrate! 🙂

  • Get a copy of the film “The Promise” It is an excellent unbiased piece of reporting about mammograms and lasts about an hour, distilled down from many hours of interviews with some really knowledgeable people on all sides of the debate.

    For myself, I use thermography instead and have refused to go for a mammogram. With the thermography a medical report is provided that can be provided to your doctor so he/she can see that you are monitoring your breasts in a different way.

    I am so keen on thermography being available to everyone that I host a clinic in my local area. It is completely safe (is infra red photography operated by a skilled practitioner) and involves no damaging manipulation of the breasts. It can be used to detect the early signs of many diseases. Mammograms do not detect cancer until it has been developing sometimes for 10 years.

    There is a genuine alternative!

  • Deborah

    I never knew that Carol, why don’t we hear about it?

  • Nadine Cooper

    Carol’s too professional to post one herself, but here’s a link to the page of her website giving more details of thermography and the dates of the next clinics she is hosting:

    Been looking at this trying to decide what to do myself. NICE offers an “evidence search” for papers. An Aug 2013 meta-analysis (reviewing all the relevant papers) on thermography and a couple of other new techniques says “there is currently insufficient evidence to recommend the use of these technologies for breast cancer screening”. In North America they seem to go further and say don’t use it – these are some clinical guidelines from the NICE database with references to their evidence: And here is an MD’s down to earth blog post So the conventional medical profession are rather down on it… though it does find some cancers, and maybe earlier than mammograms. Looks like it’s an additional form of screening rather than a replacement.

    Another alternative for you Sarah, is MRI scanning. No radiation and no squeezing! This is offered in the UK if you have a high risk due to family history, as it’s twice as effective as mammograms. It also gives more false positives requiring a biopsy, hence why it’s offered to those who would rather be safe than sorry. And of course it’s more expensive, which is why we don’t all get them… Could your GP be convinced if you told them how bad a time you had with your mammogram, I wonder?

  • Mandy Clark

    Blimey Sarah I had no idea but now look forward to that letter. Thought smear tests were bad enough! Loved the last statement. Having never experienced it my advice would be do it then have the 3 G&T’s. It could save your life.

  • Hilary Wellington

    OH Sarah, I really empathise. Not that my breasts are so sensitive but I hate having anything done to me. I had a breast cancer scare a few years ago and had a mammogram as part of the clinical screening. The woman who did it was so horrible I couldn’t believe she could have a job working with women who were being screened because a specialist breast cancer clinical nurse practitioner had already examined them and thought they had cancer. I was a cervical smear refusnik after being treated badly by a nurse who was angry when my smear got blotted with blood high up in my vagina (which I should have known about, apparently – how irresponsible of me to waste her time when I was bleeding) and since the experience at the Breast Clinic I’m a mammogram refusnik too. And anyway, I know we’re supposed to be grateful for these preventative checks but the feminist in me asks why women’s bodies are policed by these checks and men’s bodies aren’t subjected to intimate screening. Couldn’t be to do with the male domination of the medical profession could it?

  • Deborah

    Hi Hilary, couldn’t agree more – I’ve had some horrible experiences, returning several times for the same test because something got messed up. And of course it always made me worry that something was wrong!
    Just a grin and bear it exercise for me!

  • What an exciting discussion, not only because I sympathize with Susan’s anguish, but because I had no idea there were any monitoring alternatives besides self exams. I’ll be checking out the links above.

    I just had my mammogram. The technician was wonderful. But both the waiting room (in which we sat in thin johnnies) and the actual test room were freezing. As were the plates between which my breasts were squeezed. I totally agree that men would never put up with this painful or at the very least, quite uncomfortable, crap. (Which is also how I feel about the lack of safe, effective hot flash meds!)

    Thanks for a fantastic, brave post. And, you’re fabulous.

  • Deborah

    I’m expecting my letter for my mammogram next month. Not looking forward to it, have to say but then my sister-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer on her first exam. She was given the all-clear earlier this year but if she had decided not to go, well who knows. Can’t bear to think about it.

    (And thank you Lynette – agree really helpful post!)

  • Deborah

    Really great to see all the positive comments under the Facebook post pointing out the reasons why Sarah should have a mammogram and stories about how many women had benefitted from early detection.

    Good to get talking about it. and agree, many it’s worth it even if it is uncomfortable.