NSMC In The News

<< back
Item reporter's account of vital exam for women
10/1/2010
The Daily Item
By Chris Stevens

Deanna Smith, a technologist whose job is to administer mammograms, laughed when I asked if she could squeeze me in for an appointment this week.

"Literally," she said with a laugh.

I am one of those people: I visit my doctor regularly; I go to the dentist twice a year and every fall, since I turned 40, I schedule a mammogram.

I do it because it's easy and because I can name seven women off the top of my head, friends and family members, who have battled and, I'm grateful to say, have thus far beaten breast cancer.

I don't want to be number eight, but if I am, I want the best possible odds.

Inside the Rosemary Costin Wellness Center in Union Hospital, where Smith works, it is a small oasis of calm. The walls are rose colored, the lights dim, the magazines are recent. It's more woman friendly, discreet, warm," Smith said, looking for the right description.

What it is not is a radiology lab, which is where I had my first mammogram, and is decidedly less discreet.

In the Wellness Center, there is nothing to send fear through your heart and no random people talking loudly in a hallway steps away from your largely bare upper half.

Instead, there are two small dressing rooms with mirrors, cleaner than your favorite department store and a "parlor" rather than a waiting room. It's quiet in the parlor and the lighting is soft. It's a lot like your grandmother's living room, with fewer knick knacks and no doilies. But tucked in a room across the hall, there is the machine. While the designers of the center went a long way to make women comfortable in preparing for what is undeniably an uncomfortable test, you still must face the machine. It is, after all, the reason you're there.

Standing tall and silent on its own, the compressor is not so intimidating. Once you step up and a shelf is raised to your chest level and the clear plastic plate starts to compress parts of you you'd rather it didn't, it becomes way less benign. It's not the enemy, but it is the annoying pest you desperately want to shoo away - now.

And Smith's not going to lie to you.

"I would never, ever say it's not uncomfortable," she said.

But, she added, it's not as uncomfortable as it once was.

Back in the day it was all cold metal machines in a cold clinical lab, where you were put in impossible positions and told to hold your breath until a technician released you.

Today, mammography machines are all digital, mostly smooth edged plastic, with places to hold on to. Once the picture is taken, the plate releases automatically and you are free to regroup. Images are shot in seconds and the whole procedure takes less than 15 minutes.

Don't tell me you can't find 15 minutes to potentially save your life.

Smith said she believes some women ignore the test because they don't want to be touched or they're embarrassed about their appearance.

"And I think a lot of women don't want to know the outcome," she added.

The wellness center does on average 6,500 screenings per year and Smith said 7 percent had breast cancer in 2009, which she said is slightly below average. Technology has allowed radiologists to read the images with amazing accuracy, she said, and now there are techs dedicated to just that, reading mammograms.

Smith waves off a report that surfaced last year from a governmental task force that suggested women could wait until they were 50 to have a mammogram or that they could do it every other year.

"We've seen patients come for a mammogram one year and they're fine and the next year, they're not," she said. "If it's a speck, it's more treatable than if you wait two or three years and give it a chance to get bigger."

That debate brings me back to a friend who was dealing with breast cancer at the time the report was released. Only in her 40s, she noted that had she listened and put off her routine mammogram until she was 50, she might not be here to tell the tale.

Do yourself a favor, call for an appointment. It's easy, it's quick, it's not exactly painless, but it's a whole lot better than the possible alternative.

"I think women need to take care of themselves and they forget that sometimes," Smith said. "You need to be your own best friend and take care of yourself."

<< back