The Guide to Surviving Breast Cancer Screening and Diagnostic MRI

Last month, I wrote about the guide to surviving mammograms. When your breasts* are temporarily smashed, to the point where you didn’t think they could be flattened any further, there is nothing fun about that. Breast cancer patients tend to talk about surviving cancer and not about getting through these imaging appointments. Today, I’d like to touch on ways to survive a diagnostic breast MRI, which is sometimes used in breast screening to supplement a mammogram.

Breast Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

Breast MRI uses powerful magnets to generate detailed pictures of your boobies. You’re to lie tummy down, hands over your head on a moveable flat table, with your boobs hanging into an opening. After you’ve been situated as comfortably as possible on this hard, narrow table, you, along with the table, will slide into a large cylinder-shaped tube. This procedure will last approximately 18 minutes, during which you’ll hear a constant sound of jack hammer, with some breaks in between. You’re to hold completely still to insure accuracy. Once inside the tube, you’ll feel alone in a tight space.

You might be given the choice of music to occupy your mind, but the music would have to be really loud to drown out the construction noise. Near the beginning of the scan, a contrast material will be injected into your arm through an IV to help outline breast tissue details. The technologist will speak to you through a speaker if any communication is to be had. These 18 minutes can feel like forever. How can you survive it?

Do’s and don’ts during a breast MRI

DO ask a friend or family member to come along. Even just knowing that your loved one is near can be comforting.

DON’T be afraid to ask questions or interrupt the process if something is really bothering you. The technologist can help you adjust your position or let you take a break as needed.

DO focus on your breathing. Notice the natural rising and falling of your body as you lay there. Come back to your breath over and over again.

DON’T scratch an itch or move around. If you pay close enough attention, you will feel some level of discomfort. Unless you're in pain or you're super uncomfortable, know that these feelings will pass.

DO close your eyes if it can help forget that you’re in a tube. Instead, imagine you’re in open space.

DON’T tense up your muscles. Notice when you feel tension in your body, from your face, arms, shoulders, torso, gluts to your legs. Invite relaxation into those muscles and let your body fall heavy on the table.

DO hum or speak softly to yourself. You can hardly hear yourself but you can feel what you’re saying. Soothe yourself with your own voice.

DON’T say to yourself, “I can’t wait for this to be over!” This will likely lead to further impatience and frustration. Your scan will take as long as it takes.

D0 think about what you plan to do to reward yourself after you leave the clinic. Perhaps it is a, “Jenny, you did it!” or a mocha waiting for you down the street.

DON’T try to calculate how long it has been. Chances are, it hasn’t been as long as you think.

Bonus tip on surviving a breast MRI: self-touch

No, I’m not asking you to think kinky thoughts as you lay inside an enclosed tube. Rather, remember your arms overhead? Your hands could be touching each other. In fact, before the machine starts, bring your hands to touch, one on top of the other. Feel the warmth of your hand, the texture of your skin. Notice what it is like to be touched, to be cared for, to be comforted, by you. Much like the touch of a loved one can help lower your cortisol level, so here you are, lowering your own stress level because you’re loving you.

Loving yourself through cancer

It’s hard enough going through cancer, your body does NOT need another, “Hurry up and get this over with!” moment. Instead, consider how you can love yourself through it all. If you need help getting through cancer care and life thereafter, let me know!

*Breasts are used in plural form with full awareness and respect that this might not be true for everyone


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 present moment, self-love and self-compassion. She has grown pretty fond of her toes recently. She says hi to them every time she passes them by.