From the Breast Diaries:

Six Ways to Make a Mammogram More Tolerable

By now you’ve probably seen the internet jokes that compare the mammogram experience to having your breast squashed in a refrigerator door/ automatic garage/ etc.  A few years back, I joined the club of women who have our annual mammograms, and I can’t say that I disagree with the imagery of the jokes; however, the benefits of early detection FAR outweigh the discomfort (don’t you hate when doctors say that?  It’s not “discomfort” or “a little pressure”—  It HURTS!), so I’m willing to put up with it.

I’d like to share a few tips I’ve learned as both the doctor and the patient, to make the experience a bit less awful:

  • If you are premenopausal and you experience breast tenderness or swelling in the week before/ during your period, schedule your mammogram appointment to avoid those times.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain med (Advil, Motrin, Tylenol, etc) about an hour before your mammogram appointment.
  • Don’t wear deodorant, cream or powder on the day of your mammogram.  It can show up on the films, and the radiologist can’t read them accurately.  You might get called to come back again on another day— inconvenient, and more radiation!  This is the mammogram of a woman who applied Desitin cream under her breasts, resulting in artifacts (arrows pointing to tiny white clusters of dots) on the films that looked like cancer.  She was called back, and after she cleaned her skin, the new pictures proved that there was no cancer, just Desitin.
  • Best outfit to wear to a mammogram:  Two pieces (pants or skirt with a top) are better than one.  If you wear a dress, you must strip down completely, and sit in the “gowned waiting area” wearing a tiny paper (cloth if you’re lucky) “gown” that barely covers the private bits.  Need I say more?
  • If you are having a breast ultrasound (sonogram) test, realize that the person performing the exam may be liberal with the gel that they must apply to your breasts during the test.  You may be very “goopy” afterward, and the construction-paper quality towels they provide might not cut it, especially if you are going back to work or you have other plans, and you can’t immediately return home to shower.  Several patients of mine, after confronting this situation and its ramifications, now bring their own supply of baby wipes to use after their test.  They either put a few in a ziploc bag, or bring one of those Huggies purse-size wipes containers.  Now you know.
  • If you are having a breast MRI, or any sort of needle biopsy, and you are at all anxious about it, ask your doctor to prescribe a mild anti-anxiety or sedative (Xanax, Valium, etc) to take just before the test.  If you are comfortable, the test can be performed in less time, and often more accurately.

Hope this helps you next time your appointment comes up.  Any other ideas out there?  I’ll include them in a future post!


Tags: , , , , , ,

  • Xraygirl643

    In response to your comment “It’s not just “discomfort” or “a little pressure” — It HURTS!” : To say this, is an injustice to many patients. That kind of statement, I believe, hinders the efforts of early detection. The mammography experience is different for everyone. It does not “hurt” everyone. As a medical professional myself (in breast imaging), I see many patients that have told me “I’ve waited SO LONG to come for a mammogram, because of all the stories other people have told me, about how it hurts.” These women, who are well past 40 are prolonging their “early detection” because somebody else has different pain tolerances or sensitivies, that they may not have. I have had many baseline (1st time) patients who have come in the exam room so scared and full of anxiety because of other people telling them it hurts, and then after the test is finished, they look at me and say… “that’s it?” People are generally “nervous” or “scared” to begin with, when coming for this test. People telling them that it “HURTS” doesn’t help our efforts for early detection, because what “HURTS” one person may very well be, only “discomfort” for someone else.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for reading, and for your feedback! You know, I’ve found it much more helpful to patients to be candid about the experience ahead of them. Having a mammogram is an uncomfortable procedure for most of the women I’ve encountered, to varying degrees, but being clear with patients about why it’s so important is the real key. I’ve written this post to suggest ways to make the test more tolerable so that women come back every year, and don’t run out the door after their baseline mammogram, never to return, because they had a bad experience the first time around.

      • Erika Lowenberg


  • kaykow

    I have had mammograms since the 90’s. While they were uncomfortable, they didn’t hurt until 3-4 years ago. Now they are severely painful. I have had bruising. I am apprehensive about my next mammogram due to how painful they have been the last few years. I have tried taking otc pain meds but they didn’t work. The techs don’t care. They treat me like I’m a piece of meat. They do nothing at all to try to make it better. No woman should EVER have a painful mammogram. I have a high tolerance for pain but find that mammograms are too painful. This year maybe my last because they are just too unbearable painful

  • SpottyHedge

    I also want to echo that it doesn’t always hurt and making such a big deal that it does isn’t helpful. You can be “upfront” without being scary, i.e. Some women find it uncomfortable, while others find it painful. Also, if possible, seek out an imagine center that is focused on women. The place I go is amazing and they always make me feel as comfortable as possible.