Stacey, a Pink Hope Outreach Ambassador, shares her experience with breast screening and surveillance including physical checks, mammograms, ultrasounds and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).
My experience with regular breast surveillance started when I entered the high risk category shortly after genetic testing revealed that I carried the BRCA2 gene. I was 18 at the time, and more often than not I was the youngest person in the waiting room at each of my appointments. This fact never bothered me – rather I felt very lucky that I had been given the gift of knowledge and therefore the opportunity to be so closely monitored from such a young age. The range and frequency of the tests was such that even the tiniest changes in my breasts were likely to be picked up very early.
I had regular surveillance right up until I underwent a preventative mastectomy at 22. Since then, I visit my doctor every year or so for a physical check up.
Physical Check Ups
Physical check ups are important for every woman – even those not in the high risk category. These are quick and pain free. Every time I visit my breast surgeon, she does a physical examination of my breasts. If you don’t have a breast surgeon, ask your GP for a physical check up every year or 6 months.
I also try to remind my friends via facebook to do their own breast check on the first day of every month. These are easy and will only take a few minutes to do – there are some great tips on the Pink Hope website for self checks. I always say – it’s never too early or too late to get into the habit!
I have only ever had one mammogram, as my understanding is that younger women’s breast tissue is too dense for this method to be entirely effective. This was probably my least favourite of the surveillance methods because I found it to be the most uncomfortable. Your breasts are squished between two plates on the x-ray machine in order to get a clear image. Whilst it was uncomfortable, it was not unbearable, and I think that if you have to put up with a small amount of discomfort in order to have a mammogram, then it is something that can be dealt with.
I believe that every woman – including those outside of the high risk category – should consider getting regular mammograms once they reach an appropriate age. My understanding is that women over 40 are entitled to free mammograms – check with your healthcare professionals to confirm.
I have had 2 breast ultrasounds – one before my double mastectomy, and one after when I thought I had found a lump. Luckily, it turned out to be nothing! It is similar to the ultrasounds that pregnant women have, but it is your breasts that are screened. From memory, the nurse performed the ultrasound, and then a second person came in to double check that nothing had been missed. The whole process is fairly quick, easy and painless.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRIs)
After physical check ups, the most common form of breast screening I underwent was Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRIs. This involves laying face down on the MRI machine bed, which then moves into the MRI machine. I think some people struggle with this aspect of the procedure, particularly those who are claustrophobic because you need to remain as still as possible in a small space for about half an hour. I didn’t mind – the nurses gave me headphones so that I could listen to music throughout the procedure, and I had a ball in my hand that I could squeeze if I felt panicked, which would set off an alert and I would be taken out of the machine. Once you are inside the machine, a special ink is injected into your arm which helps obtain the images, and the screening starts. The machine makes a lot of clunky noises whilst working, and the nurses watch a computer screen nearby to ensure that clear images are obtained. I had quite a few MRIs before my surgery as these were the most effective method of screening my breasts in my late teens/early twenties.
Always Consult Your Healthcare Professionals
I have summarised my own breast screening experiences above in order to hopefully provide some insight from the perspective of someone who has little medical knowledge, but has become part of the high risk world. I think that these days, we are very lucky to have a number of different screening options available to us.
My advice to other women would be to be proactive about your health, talk to your doctor about the screening options available to you and to take advantage of them.