After years of urging women to have mammograms starting at 40, the American Cancer Society recently changed its guidelines to suggest that most women can put off annual mammograms until turning 45.
However, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Latinas, and at younger ages than in non-Hispanic women. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Office of Women's Health, Latinas may have lower breast cancer rates than white women, but they're more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage, when the cancer is more advanced and harder to treat. Even when diagnosed early, Latinas are "more likely to have tumors that are larger and harder to treat than white women."
When I told my mother I had an appointment for my first mammogram, she immediately asked why. "On the news they said women don't really have to do it when they're 40; they can wait until later."
But my mom is one of those old-school Puerto Ricans and hasn't had a mammogram in more than a decade. So I didn't care what the new guidelines or my mother had to say; I wanted a mammogram as early as possible.
I'm the kind of mom who rarely goes to the doctor when sick. I've been known to forget to have a yearly physical. But the older I get, the more I realize the importance of my health and self-care. Having a 10-year-old son with autism, I want to live for as long as I can. And I'm willing to take whatever precautions possible.
I read a few things on mammograms so I had a little bit of an idea of what to expect in advance, but the experience was still a surprise. Here's what I wish I would have known beforehand to make the experience less uncomfortable:
Photograph by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez
1. Wear a comfortable, two-piece outfit. You will be asked to undress from the waist up. Depending on where you go, you could be given a shawl or a gown. You could be undressed for a while so you'll want your bottom half covered. No need to let it all hang out.
2. Wear comfortable shoes. During your mammogram, you may be standing around for a while. You'll need to stand very still and in multiple positions, so you'll want to be wearing shoes that are comfortable and won't make you fidget.
3. Avoid wearing deodorant or lotion. This is the yuck factor of it. I scheduled an appointment first thing in the morning and then applied deodorant when it was over. If you're wearing deodorant, you'll be asked to wipe it off and the wipes will probably be super cold. Also, don't forgot to bring deodorant with you for when you're finished!
4. Try to wear your hair up. If you have long hair, you may want to put it in a top knot, bun or ponytail so that your hair won't get in the way during the exam. The technician already has to position your boobs a certain way don't make them move your hair out from under your sweaty armpit.
5. Avoid wearing large earrings or prepare to remove them. Because they will just be one more thing in the way...
6. Be OK with a stranger being all up in your business and positioning your body just so. This was the only thing that was a little strange. At one point, it felt like a weird game of Twister: feet forward, hold your boob with one hand, tuck in your tummy, tilt your head up, now stay just like that.
7. No breathing. Once you're in the right position, you will be asked not to breathe for a few seconds.
8. It's not as painful as you think. I'm not usually accustomed to putting my breasts in something that looks like a panini press. It didn't hurt, but it was uncomfortable. And within seconds, it's over.
9. Have a sense of humor. This is NOT the day to leave your humor at home. Getting a mammogram can feel awkward and uncomfortable, but try to laugh it off and have a good attitude about it. (I even posted on Snapchat while I was there.) The more you're at ease, the easier it will be for the technician.
10. Treat yourself. After it's all said and done, do something special for yourself. So many women put these tests off because they're scared, nervous or shy about being so physically exposed. Going for your first mammogram is not only brave, but it says you care about your body, your health, and your life. That's something worth celebrating.