The Guide to Surviving Breast Cancer Screening and Diagnostic Mammograms

Surviving cancer

Let’s face it. When breast cancer patients are in the thick of their cancer diagnosis and treatment, they’re just trying to get by. Surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy all require recovery periods. The side effects of treatment are very real and some of them lasting. Many breast cancer patients are simply taking it a day at a time, trying to survive.

Having survived cancer, it is then interesting to note that some of the patients I have spoken to have a hard time with the screening and diagnostic tools such as mammogram and breast MRI. While they might be grateful for the accessibility of screening and early detection of cancer recurrences, they dread going to those appointments. Since regular mammograms and in some cases MRI might be recommended as routine care, is there value in talking about how to survive not just the cancer, but also follow-up care?

Whether you’re walking into your second mammogram or your 20th, I present to you a two-part series on how to survive these screening and diagnostic imaging appointments. Please note I’ll be using breasts in the plural form; I understand we do not all have two breasts and I’m cognizant of that.

Mammogram

Mammo: I recently heard this term and I consider it a euphemism for mammogram. Call it whatever you want, but it is not pleasant. A technician cues you to stand against a large machine as she operates slides and squishes your boobies into pancakes from various angles. X-ray images are taken of your flattened boobies and checked for abnormalities. If you’re going in for a diagnostic mammogram, more images will be taken and magnified for accuracy. In other words, more pancakes.  

While cancer patients tell me they’ve been instructed with all kinds of creative things to do as they bare their boobs against the mammography machine, you don’t hear this one very much: “Lean in(to the machine) like you love it!” That would be quite difficult to do considering the circumstances. However, there are ways to get through that moment of pain and discomfort. Let’s call it mindfulness, distress tolerance and self-compassion.

The mindful way through a mammogram

Mindfulness is about making space for the experience you’re about to enter into, paying attention to it, moment-by-moment. Usually when the experience is pleasant, we have no problem jumping in. However, when you’re about to get your chest temporarily flattened, it’s harder to accept the experience without resisting it and being with it as it is. Here are some ways you can practice staying present during a mammogram.

Feel the Robe

First of all, let’s backup and see if you can ask for a warm robe. Whether you’re getting a mammogram in the middle winter or the heat of the summer, a warm robe feels nice. We often associate warmth with comfort. Why not take a moment and feel into that warmth? The robe is there to keep you from the cold air in the room. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge what it’s doing for you.

Experience your breath

As the technician is setting up the machine and pulling up your record, take the time to ground yourself by focusing on your breath. Your breath is your anchor. Feel the rising and the falling of your chest. Perhaps notice the cold air coming into your nostrils and the warm air as it leaves you. No one breath is the same. Take some time with your breath. You’re alive because of it.

Sense your pain

This may seem contrary but as your breasts are being flattened, feel into those sensations. Your body is experiencing pain for good reasons and it’s sending you signals. The technician will often use a dial to tighten the slides together and you will experience an increase in pain with every turn. See if you can notice where you’re feeling the pain. Take it all in. Feel the tension, then feel the release when the slides separate again. Notice how when you enter into your pain rather than avoid it, it still hurts, but you learn to not be afraid of it. You are co-existing with it and watching the sensations come and go, come and go.

Tolerating the distress of a mammogram

Borrowing from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) tradition, when you cannot change difficult circumstances, it’s about getting through it without making things worse. After all, you wouldn’t want to have to reschedule your mammogram or have additional images taken because you couldn’t hold still. Within DBT there’s a set of skills designed specifically to help you tolerate your distress and survive the moment.

Here are some additional ways to get through a mammogram:

  • Think of a comforting, safe image - some mammo technicians suggests your kids, grandkids or pets. Others mention butterflies and unicorns. Whatever floats your boat.
  • Conjure up soothing sounds and play them in your head
  • Say a prayer to your Higher Power
  • Count to 10 and back – if this is too easy, count by 3’s. That should grab your attention
  • Focus on touch – as you hug the machine, notice the texture, color, shape, etc.
  • Notice what you hear – be curious and name the different sounds you hear. Can you notice a new sound every time the machine moves?
  • Remind yourself this will soon be over - “Beth, you’re doing it. You’re here and this will pass.”
  • Be grateful for medical access - “Beth, this hurts like heck but I’m glad you can access this kind of care.”
  • Affirm yourself – “Beth, you’ve been through harder things and I’m with you and I love you.”

If the latter sounds a lot like self-compassion, that’s where we’re heading.

Extending compassion to yourself

Kristin Neff is a guru when it comes to all things self-compassion. Unlike mindfulness where you enter into the experience of pain without escaping, self-compassion is about seeing yourself in pain and wishing it wasn’t so. While compassion does not make the pain go away, it does ask the questions, “What do I need right now? Can I give that to myself? What can I do to hold myself with more tenderness?”

Self-reassurance and self-advocacy

Would it reassure you to tell yourself you’re well loved and cared for? Would you want to close your eyes and focus inward? Would it soothe you to think about your partner? If the technician is turning the dial too tight, would you love yourself enough to say something about it? I ask that because I once had a patient tell me her breasts were bruised for two weeks after her mammogram. She said the technician made the slides too tight and she didn’t want to speak up. You’re important to speak up for. Would you do that for yourself?

Life after cancer

While you may no longer be in cancer survival mode, follow-up appointments and regular diagnostic images are and will be a part of your life. You don’t have to white knuckle through these tests “just to get them over with”! You also don’t have to wish your cancer experience away. Let me know if you can use some help staying present, tolerating distress and loving yourself as you are. I’m here!


Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond psychotherapy practice in WA. She helps distressed couples and breast cancer patients. That can also mean couples distressed by a partner’s cancer diagnosis, or couples wishing to use their marriage as a resource during their cancer journey. When she’s not thinking about couples and cancer, she has found yoga to be a wonderful practice to nurture mindfulness, distress tolerance and self-compassion. She has grown pretty fond of her toes recently. She says hi to them every time she passes them by.