Mammo Whammo: Mammogram Anxiety and How to Manage It

Abs - July 28, 2013

A few weeks back, an anxiety sister told me she was a bit more anxious than usual. When I asked her if she knew why (after all, sometimes we have no idea what causes our spinning), she responded that she had her yearly mammogram scheduled for the next day. Which reminded me that my mammogram is coming up next month. And then I got anxious.

While I have never met a woman who enjoys her mammograms, I assumed none of my peers got as anxious about them as I do. My anxiety seems justified: I never have a clean read. I’m always the one getting pulled out of the waiting room for additional films and ultrasound because of a shadow, or scar tissue, or cysts, or fibroadenomas. Biopsy seems a sure bet with me (did I mention I have a needle phobia?), so it doesn’t surprise me that my heart races whenever I think about mammograms. And, of course, there’s always that pink elephant in the room…

But, apparently, I have been wrong. I’ve been surveying lots of anxiety sisters lately, and it turns out that many (most?) women experience profound anxiety in the days (weeks, for some) leading up to picture day.

The Women’s Health Center where I go for mammography is a really terrific place where patients are treated with kindness and sensitivity (Millie apologizes the entire time she scallopinis my breasts and doesn’t annoy me by asking if I’ve seen any good movies lately). The test is uncomfortable—sometimes even painful—but, not, in and of itself, anxiety-provoking (like, say, a spinal tap). Being in my mid-forties, I’ve had quite a few mammograms, and I know the staff pretty well, so it does feel a bit “old hat.” But the anxiety does not diminish. Not even a little.

“Are you kidding?” one Anxiety Sister said to me. “It just gets worse. You figure it’s gotta be your turn at some point.” Ok, she’s not known for her optimism, but I do understand what she means. Breast cancer feels epidemic these days—I’ve had two close friends diagnosed within the last year and am acquainted with three other women and a man diagnosed within the last eighteen months. Four women I am close with are five-year survivors. And many of my friends report the same story. It’s a little like being a wooden duck in a shooting gallery. No wonder we’re anxious.

For me, however, the prospect of a diagnosis is not what fuels my anxiety the most. What scares me—what terrifies me—is that, after all of the palpitations, irritability, and insomnia surrounding my mammogram appointment, and after the extra films and the additional ultrasound consults, they still will have missed something. So, my anxiety does not go away when the radiologist says, “See you next year.” It lurks there as I imagine a few rogue cells must be doing…

So what is the solution to this anxiety problem? Well, other than purchasing my own digital mammogram machine for monthly checks (say what you will about Tom Cruise—I’m impressed with any man who buys his wife medical equipment for her birthday), I guess I have to trust that my weekly shower exams and my biannual feel-ups at my gynecologist’s office (I make him grope me from every angle), along with annual digital mammograms with ultrasound will most likely allow me to catch any mutations in an early treatable stage.

Yeah, right. Easier said than done. So what I actually do is allow myself to indulge in one day of planned pre-mammogram panic per year. This way, whenever my mind starts to go the Terms of Endearment route, I tell myself, not to banish the thought, but rather to put it on hold for in-depth exploration on Mammo Monday in July. On this day, I am allowed to freak out, rewrite my will, and surf the internet for new methods of breast restoration as well as revisit all of the breast anxiety I’ve stockpiled throughout the year. After all, I’ll need something to think about for all that time I’ll spend shivering in my pink flowered gown (why do they keep those rooms so cold?), waiting for the radiologist to suggest one more film…

11 thoughts on “Mammo Whammo: Mammogram Anxiety and How to Manage It

  1. Right on target essay and I’ve been dealing with mammogram anxiety for 31 years! Today is my dreaded day before mammogram day and I’m visualizing in my emotionally spiraling brain how they will tell me I have the unmentionable and what follow up surgeries I’ll need etc. By the way both my mom and mother in law had lumpectomy’ sat age 78 and 80 and are alive and well for years post surgeries! But, Luke your self I can’t get past the ,- this is the Year fear 😱

  2. Hi,
    Hopefully you have a supportive friend to talk to before the test and you are able to do something fun post mammogram. It really is hard. We try to force ourselves to focus on the day, hour, minute. We challenge ourselves to say can I get through this hour and if so, that is the only thing I need to focus on right now. Thanks for your comment. Mags and Abs

  3. This was timely for me as I had an issue and had not only a mammogram today,now that I’m 40, but also a Glactogram. I tried my best not to freak out with anxiety, and told myself I’d give myself the day, but my daughter who has anxiety had a rough morning and my morning for crisis was cut short. I think allowing ourselves time to ‘freak out’ is good as long as we have a plan and know it can only be temporary.

  4. Absolutely, we agree! In fact, sometimes we take a DIB day (dive into bed day) when it all seems too much. Giving yourself the time and space to freak out is important, especially if you are able to find a ritual or method that helps you get it out! Mags and Abs

  5. Here I was thinking I was the only one ! I have had mammos since turning 42 (mother diagnosed with BC at 68) and have put off my most recent one for 4 months. My mind wanders to all the what ifs and I feel like ignoring it is my only option to maintain my sanity. Decided today though that I’m biting the bullet and making an appt this week !

  6. You all are saving me right now—it’s mammo eve for me. I’m such a mess I literally have to take the day off work. I especially appreciate you pointing out that the fear grows with each passing year. I can literally think of a dozen women in my life who have/had breast cancer. My mom had it and went on to live another 30 years and when she died, it was not from breast cancer. Mother in law, best friend, more friends, colleagues, etc. Add my anxiety on top of it and it’s just not neat. All health stuff, but especially diagnostic testing is my primary phobia, and this week thanks to my physical, I have: mammogram, blood work, bone density and—so fun—the smear-your-poo on a postcard test!!!!! The opportunity for the Big Casino to come jumping out at me from any of these “routine screenings” are in the dozens, but the mammo, that’s the biggie. I’m 54 and have huge painful boobs (this is a lament and not a brag, and my buxom sisters know the struggle), so the whole thing is just such an ordeal. I love my imaging center staff, so I’ve got that going for me. But it just sucks. Thanks for listening!

  7. I have mine schedulesy in August and I’m already panicking. Every time I think of it I can feel my chest tighten up and as though I’m losing breath. The total fright flight mode.
    I do give myself one of those DIB days however I still find myself panicking on normal days… I just don’t know what else to do. My mom had a DCIS eight years ago and she beat it… But I wonder if hers was due to hormone replacement therapy, smoking, birth control. She quit smoking 20 years ago but I’m sure it had lasting damages. I do wonder if hers was due to hormone replacement therapy, smoking, birth control. She quit smoking 20 years ago but I’m sure it had lasting damages. I’ve never done any of those things but I still panic just the same. Please pray for me and if you have any other suggestions for me, please share.

  8. I thought I was the only one. Having a dad die from cancer put me in panic mode with all things medical. Therapy helped a lot when I had my last mammo. I finally just allowed myself to go down the trail of “what-ifs” and for whatever reason, not fighting the unknown helped in that moment.
    Thanks for the great article!

  9. I am so thankful to have found this blog today! It is mammo eve for me and I am doing a little better than I thought but this past 2 weeks leading up has been nothing short of a nightmare…I am only 35, but a year and a half ago I was having breast pain and had a mammo done. Of course, they found something and had ultrasound done, but after almost 2 hours of 3 different doctors doing the ultrasound, they couldn’t find the little mass they spotted on the mammo. The doctor said I needed to go back in 6 months. Well, here it is a year and half later and I was too scared to go back because I didn’t want to know what they would find. I moved and have a new doctor and when I told her, she freaked out and scheduled me right away (which did not help my anxiety). Well, I did ok the first few days after that appt, until I found a round red rash on my left breast (cue extreme panic and the 100% assurance I figured I had IBC). It has been over a week since first spotting it and it has dulled to a dark red spot and looks like its fading, so I am 98% sure it’s nothing, but I still feel sick thinking about it. The constant armpit and upper back pain I have certainly only adds to the situation (the back pain is what I originally went to the doc for in the first place. Neck and back x-rays showed nothing except a little arthritis, so no answers there) Once I found that spot though, I knew I had BC (in my head anyways lol). I couldn’t eat, sleep, function…I had to call into work a few days…My husband had to rush me to the ER because I became so lethargic from not being able to eat, I could barely stand (not to mention my TMJ in my face and jaw was SO bad I couldn’t hardly take flares up when I am stressed)…I had JUST started new anxiety meds but because the time of me feeling like I was going crazy correlated so closely to the time I started the meds, I am now afraid to take them again…what if they were part of the cause of me feeling the extreme anxiety I felt? Now that I am here the day before, I am feeling extremely anxious of course, but I think I have somewhat accepted that I can’t change whatever the outcome is going to be so I can’t let it control my life (I am sure this will be shortlived and I will be a mess tonight or in the morning)…but reading this blog and all you other ladies comments has really made me understand that I am not alone in this. Fingers Crossed for tomorrow!

  10. I was HURT screening mamo (in way NOT related to doing the test). HURT WORSE (the shoulder pain from attempt to tear my arm off may last forever) to make matters worse when I conplain I was told thid normal to be expected…the radiooligest repeatedly told me they found nothing but sceduled for 6 months (is this just to give them another chance to cripple me?) I’m terrified!!! not of result- of the TEST

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