The earlier the stage of breast cancer, the easier and less invasive the treatment and the higher the chances of surviving. Getting your regularly recommended mammograms, therefore, is key to ensuring that your breast cancer will be caught as early as possible and you will have the best possible experience with treatment.
However, mammograms can be uncomfortable and frightening, leading many women to avoid going to get them. The compression can be painful, and poor positioning of the breast can make for fuzzy images, which could necessitate further testing to clear up any uncertainty about your mammogram results.
Recognizing that this issue needs to be solved to improve survival rates and patients’ experiences with treatment, a team of researchers set to work creating a more comfortable mammogram experience. And what they came up with, while surprisingly simple, is genius.
One of the issues the team found with traditional mammography machines was the handles. Women are supposed to hold onto these handles while being screened, but their tendency is to grip them harder than necessary, which tenses up the pectoral muscles and causes the compression of the breast to be more painful. Tense pectoral muscles can also make breast positioning more difficult, resulting in poor images.
The team’s solution? Take off the handles and attach armrests instead. That way, the patient is signaled to relax rather than to hang on. The pectoral muscles can relax as well, leading to less pain and better images.
But if you want something to hang onto just for comfort’s sake, you’re in luck. The researchers also designed a remote system to allow the patient to control the amount of compression placed on the breast. Patients and doctors can work together to get the right balance between compression and comfort.
There’s still a certain amount of compression necessary to get a good image, but the feeling of being in control of the situation allows the patient to more easily endure more compression without fear that it will become more uncomfortable without her consent. Feeling in control lessens the patient’s perception of pain.
Last but not least, the new mammography machines are designed to be quieter, further serving to help the patient relax their tense muscles.
Some hospitals and clinics, like St. Joseph’s Health Care in London, Ontario, are also adopting more soothing environments to complement the new machine.
“Screening should be almost like a patient going to get a spa manicure, massage or whatever,” says a radiologist there. “This is a treat for ourselves, not a threat.”
St. Joseph’s offers mammograms in dimly lit rooms and provides televisions and sound systems that play soothing films and sounds for their patients. They even have special gowns designed for easily accessing a patient’s breasts without revealing other parts of the body.
These changes are deceptively simple, but, for some women, they could mean the difference between being too frightened to get a yearly mammogram and building up the courage to go get it done. And the more women get mammograms, the more women can get diagnosed early and treated before their cancer progresses.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?