Technicians do their best to make mammograms less stressful

SHARE Technicians do their best to make mammograms less stressful

St. Mary’s Hospital mammography technologist Diane Shoen discusses mammogram fears at the hospital in Decatur, Ill. Shoen says that a mammogram might be uncomfortable, but shouldn’t be painful. (Jim Bowling/Herald & Review via AP)

DECATUR – Fear is a feeling that has been known to stop many people from doing things they know they should, including getting a mammogram.

Many questions pop up. Will it hurt? What if they find something? How do I prepare?

Decatur Memorial Hospital mammography coordinator Karen Oesch has heard many of the questions, although she has found a way to distract the patient during the scary time. “I talk all the way through it,” she said. “By the time we are done, the patient is surprised how little time it takes.”

Many people have never had a mammogram because they’ve heard about the pain. “They are talking to the wrong people,” Oesch said.

“I want to get rid of the rumors,” said St. Mary’s Hospital mammogram technician Diane Shoen. “We don’t smash; we compress.”

During a mammogram, the patient’s breast is compressed between to plates for approximately 10 seconds allowing x-ray type photos to be taken. The amount of compression is directly related to a good mammogram. “But we don’t go flat as a pancake,” Shoen said.

For some patients the process is painful; for others it is not. Everyone has a different pain tolerance. “The reality is a mammogram feels similar to having your blood pressure taken,” Oesch said.

The mammogram technicians have also found patients have different levels of modesty.

Melissa Gosda, St. Mary’s Hospital mammography technologist, has been a technician for five years. She has learned to read the body language. “You can tell if they want to start getting undressed or they want you to leave,” she said. “Some don’t even want to put the gown on and some don’t want you to take the gown away so you can do the mammogram.”

To help with modesty, technicians try to keep the patient clothed as much as possible. Oesch recommends wearing two different pieces of clothing, such as a pair of pants or skirt and a shirt. “If they wear a dress, when they undress, they are down to their underwear and the gown,” she said. “Sometime they don’t even have underwear.”

The technicians also recommend avoiding long jewelry, hats, glasses or any other accessories that get in the way.

Lotions, powder and deodorants are also not allowed. The products often have an ingredient that can appear on the image mimicking breast calcifications, an indication of breast cancer. Technicians usually offer wipes or clothes to remove any unwanted talc.

To make the procedure as painless as possible, most technicians will converse with the patients, talking about the weather, family or future plans. The one subject they are not allowed to discuss is the results of the mammogram. During a screening mammogram, or a yearly checkup, the tech is unable to tell the patient anything about the test. “I tell them ‘You will get a letter in the mail’ and ‘And thanks for coming’,” Oesch said.

The radiologist, not the mammogram technician, will view the images at a later time. “We can’t tell you anything, and you wouldn’t want us to,” Gosda said. “They consider that practicing outside our scope of practice. We would lose our license.”

Mammogram technicians try to make the procedure as painless and quick as possible. “We like to sit and talk to them at their level. It seems to ease them,” Gosda said. “I also let them know all of this is in their control.”

The technicians often ask throughout the procedure if the patient is in pain. If the patient says they are doing fine, the technician may press a little harder. “If you start to see their face contorted, then you know they are not okay,” Gosda said.

The mammogram machine can indicate the optimal amount of compression. The technicians consider this a good guideline. “But if you say you are okay, I can go a little bit further,” Gosda said. “Some of them lie and say they are okay.”

“But they are crying,” Shoen said.

For women who dread the yearly visit, Oesch recommends the buddy system. “Go with your friend and make a day of it,” she said.

For years, Oesch has watched a group of four women who have scheduled their yearly appointments at the same time. “They would do their mammograms and cheer each other on from the waiting room,” she said.

When the group was finished with their yearly visits, they would go to lunch, then go shopping. “They made it not so scary” Oesch said. “This is just a stop in your day.”

DONNETTE BECKETT/ Decatur Herald & Review Staff Writer /VIA Associated Press

EDITOR’S NOTE: October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Please visit or the American Cancer Society for more information, services and educational resources.

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