Every October, people from across the world unite to raise awareness for breast cancer.
Although it’s the most common type of cancer in the UK, according to Alex Hall, Breast Imaging Lead Radiographer at The London Clinic, early detection of breast cancer through a screening test such as a mammogram can be a life-saving measure.
“It might not be the most pleasant experience, but getting a mammogram is the right thing to do. Early detection of breast cancer is crucial for a positive outcome. I think that’s quite a powerful thing to keep in mind before a scan,” says Alex.
How a mammogram works
Mammograms are a powerful tool in overall breast health. By using low-dose X-rays, a mammogram can look for cancers that are too small to see or feel.
Screening mammograms are available at The London Clinic for people from the age of 40 years old, ten years before individuals are invited by the NHS for routine mammograms.
“There are two reasons someone might have a mammogram, either they’ve noticed symptoms such as a lump or a change in their breast, or they have no symptoms and just want a routine check-up,” says Alex.
Along with identifying breast cancer – even at a very early stage – mammograms can also detect benign breast changes such as cysts and fibroadenomas.
What to expect
“Before a mammogram takes place, patients are taken to a changing room to undress from the waist up. They’ll be asked some generic health questions, including if anyone in their family has a history of breast cancer,” says Alex.
Though patients can expect to spend around 30 minutes at the hospital for a mammogram appointment, the scan itself only takes around 10 minutes, with each breast scanned for only a matter of seconds.
“We place each breast onto the machine, which then presses the breast for a few seconds between two plates to take the X-ray images we need. The images are then sent to a radiologist, who can provide results immediately,” says Alex.
In fact, most of The London Clinic’s mammogram patients receive their results within 15 minutes of the scan, with all receiving their results within 24 hours.
If further investigations such as a biopsy or ultrasound are required, these can be arranged immediately.
Preparing for a scan
Ahead of the scan, patients are encouraged not to wear deodorant, powders or creams on the day of their appointment.
“Skincare products can cause issues with the images the scan takes. But we can always wipe these off before the scan if someone’s forgotten,” says Alex.
Since the amount of compression the machine uses can be altered, mammograms are also suitable for patients with breast implants.
In addition to the practical aspects of a mammogram, Alex also recognises the impact a diagnostic scan of its kind can have on someone’s mental state.
"I think the emotional aspect of a mammogram is much worse than the physical side of what actually happens," says Alex. “Patients only have to endure the physical pressure from the machine for a few seconds, but the time spent worrying about what the outcome might be can definitely last much longer.”
To alleviate any worries before a mammogram, Alex recommends talking to someone who has experience of what the scan involves, or bringing a friend along to the appointment for moral support.
“We’re also here to answer any questions our patients might have – and no question is too silly! Emotional stress can result in overall discomfort, and it’s part of our job to make sure people feel as physically and emotionally comfortable as possible,” says Alex.
For peace of mind this Breast Cancer Awareness Month, find out more about our state-of-the-art mammography service.