Breast Screening

Experiences of the mammogram

The mammogram is a low dose x-ray. Each breast is placed in turn on the x-ray machine and gently but firmly compressed with a clear plate. The compression only lasts a few seconds and does not cause any harm to the breasts. Compression is needed to keep the breast still and to get the clearest picture with the lowest amount of radiation possible. Some women find compression slightly uncomfortable and some feel short-lived pain. Research has shown that, for most women, it is less painful than having a blood test and compares with having blood pressure measured.

Most women we spoke with discussed their experiences of having a mammogram. Women who worked in the health field had known what to expect of the breast x-ray, but others had not. Several had heard that breast screening was painful or embarrassing but still went along to the appointment.

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Many women went routinely for screening without worrying about having mammograms. Some were glad to have been invited and were keen to go. Several said they were convinced that no problems would be found as they had no risk factors for breast cancer. 

Some women had felt nervous before their first mammogram. One health professional said she knew what to expect but still felt nervous. 

Some women had lost close friends to breast cancer or had heard about the experiences of friends and neighbours. For many women later mammograms became an accepted routine.

Some women felt embarrassed about having to undress to the waist. Others felt comfortable because the radiographers were women and experts in their field. Many found having a mammogram uncomfortable but not painful. Most women emphasised how quick the process was, so any discomfort was short-lived, and some noted that the benefits outweighed the discomfort (see 'Reasons for attending breast screening').

For some women having a mammogram caused no pain at all. One of these wondered whether this was because she had small breasts. Another, who found it uncomfortable, wondered if having larger breasts would make mammograms more painful. A few women said the x-ray machine felt cold.

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Some women found the procedure very painful. One woman's breasts hurt for a few days after a mammogram. Another said she'd had bruises. Some women said that their first mammograms were painful, but later ones varied. Some wondered whether this depended on the radiographer's skill. One woman wondered whether this was because, as she got older, her breasts had become 'softer'. Another person noted that some of her mammograms were more painful than others; she was taking HRT and her breasts were more sensitive during certain times of her menstrual cycle. Some women wondered whether squashing the breasts so much could damage them.

A few women compared having mammograms with cervical screening (smear tests), but said that mammograms were much less painful.

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Last reviewed March 2016.

Last updated February 2013.

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