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Photo: JD Williams

Yesterday, I had my first mammogram test. That Is My Age. Now that I’m over-50, I will have one every three years until I’m 73 (after which, it’s down to me to make the appointment). I LOVE the NHS and realise how fortunate I am to be offered this regular, life-saving, breast screening. For the uninitiated, having a mammogram involves: standing topless in front of an -x-ray machine, having the breasts manouevered into place on a shelf by a radiographer (one-by-one), each breast is then squashed by the machine with quite a heavy force while you hold your breath and the scanning takes place. This process reminded me, again, about the lack of discussion surrounding the ageing female body, the lack of information about the menopause. I consider myself to be a fairly intelligent woman but I still had to Google ‘why are women over-50 more at risk of breast cancer?’ Award-winning journalist Suzanne Moore has written the best feature I’ve ever come across on the menopause:

‘I find that no one wants me even to talk about it. “It” being the menopause. “My womb is a tomb” doesn’t seem to work well as a conversation starter.’

Written for the New Statesman, Moore’s feature is called There Won’t Be Blood and you can read it HERE.

48 thoughts on “Mammograms, menopause and stuff

  1. I also had my first mammogram a few months ago. I was really nervous about it but found the whole procedure completely painless and much easier than I’d imagined. Obviously this will vary from person to person as sensitivity in that area can vary. However, even a tiny amount of short-lived pain is worth it for the peace of mind. I strongly urge every woman to go for the test. Don’t be nervous, just go for it.

  2. Yes, completely agree, please let’s talk about this stuff. I’m almost 44 and feeling totally clueless. Thank you for the link, I’m off to read that article now.

  3. I agree, Louise. The letter from the NHS says breast screening is our choice and we must choose it.

    Elaine – fantastic post! Thanks for sharing and I’m pleased to hear you’ve had the all-clear. Yes to meeting up soon.

  4. Thank you for the link to the Suzanne Moore article – it sums up the whole weirdness of menopause (peri/post/whatever) perfectly. I had a meeting with a recruitment consultant last week, she said she was worried that my face would start sweating mid-interview if she put me forward for anything. My face DOES start sweating rather a lot when I’m mid-flush and it’s a bit embarrassing but apparently it makes me unemployable too. But no-one talks about this stuff! Thanks again. Your blog continues to be amazing and sets high standards – love it.

  5. Hi, I paid to have them since I was 38, then free over 50 every two years in Australia. We even have breast care buses in country areas so country women don’t have far to travel for their mammograms. Some of my earlier tests 25 yrs ago were painful but last one felt fine, a few minutes of breath holding and you’re done. Sometimes I have been called back and had to have an ultra sound then a needle biopsy after that -scary – so far all good and I am 63 now!
    I have 7 sisters and sadly one was diagnosed 5 years ago with breast cancer – found with a mammogram; she is enjoying being cancer free now, after treatment and living her stylish life with gusto 🙂
    So good to see you talking about women’s health, opening a discussion on topics of importance to us all.

  6. I got called for mine a few months ago and I’m a mere babe at 48. Off to the family planning clinic now to chat about whether I still need to take the pill as I haven’t got a clue. Thank gawd for the NHS! xxx

  7. Thanks for the link to Suzanne Moore’s feature. It’s a perceptive and incisive piece on what it’s like to go through the menopause. I particularly identified with her experience of dabbling with HRT. Yes I agree that we are fortunate to be offered regular mammograms over 50, and I applaud you for explaining the process in your blog for the uninitiated.
    I started reading your blog some time ago for your fabulous style tips, but I also enjoy your insights into health and lifestyle topics that affect mature women. Keep up the good work. Knowledge is power.

  8. Sue, Samie & Jo – thank you for your kind words, you’ve encouraged me too keep talking about these issues.

    Vix – yes, thank gawd for the NHS! The age range for breast screening has recently been extended , so it’s gone from 50-70 to 47 -73

  9. I’m 69 so will have one more – yes, always have these tests, so important. And very important also to keep talking about the menopause and all that goes with it. Brilliant, Alyson 🙂 keep up the good work as I really enjoy your writing.

  10. I’m in my 70s and have had my last mammogram – I hope – but I was so grateful for the reassurance.

    Tthree times three cheers for the NHS.!

  11. In America we start getting mammograms around 40. Earlier if there is a family history of breast cancer. My sister in law was diagnosed with early stage cancer through her mammogram at age 48. She is doing very well. It is up to us to make our yearly gynecological exam which includes getting a pap smear and mammogram at the same visit. With Obamacare, recommendations are changing – less frequent pap smears and mammograms. More like the rest of the “socialized medicine” world. Better? We’ll see, but I will keep doing my tests annually.

  12. I had a breast lump removed last year, aged 44. It didn’t show up on the routine mammogram I’d had 2 months earlier (I have the every year as part of an annual health check)
    I went to a doctor when I felt it….. and it did show up on the ultrasound he did.
    It was 3cm long. The breast doctor I went to doesn’t even use mammograms anymore.

  13. I still have an annual mammo, and I am still envious of the NHS – but the Affordable Care Act in the US mandates that insurance companies pay in full for the screening type – hooray!

  14. Here in the states, I have had mammograms since I was in my late 30s. I have dense breasts and fibrous lumps occasionally so I have been getting them every year since my mid 40s, all covered by my insurance. I just turned 50. I am going to start getting 3D mammography done with my next one, because my breasts are dense it is difficult to see any lumps that may be hiding in there, so the 3D images will be a much more accurate test.

    As far as talking about menopause goes, yes most people don’t want to talk about it, especially women. Most of what I find online is about how to deal with hot flashes. If that was all that menopause was about, life would be so simple. There may be a passing mention of “mood swings and irritability”. Talk about the understatement of the century! How about blind rage, and feeling like you are losing your mind? I think it is all wrapped up in the whole fear of aging thing, and not wanting to be perceived as less than completely competent.

  15. Gosh, I feel like an old hand at mammos. I must have had my first one in my 30s for some thick tissue. I was living in England in my 40s, but back in the US in my 50s where we usually get one every year. Not the most comfortable experience, but for 3 seconds it’s endurable. You want to talk menopause? Hot flushes, wrinkly skin tone, less hair on my legs but more on my face – and a few more changes I’m too polite to mention here. But no more periods! Yay!

  16. Clear mammogram in April, the misshapen breast I noticed in August was a 23mm cancerous lump. Op, chemo, radiotherapy. Examining your breasts is important too.

    1. Men are at risk of breast cancer too. You may want to ask your primary care provider what detection measures s/he recommends. We wouldn’t want to be deprived of your comments!

  17. Heavens yes, let’s talk about menopause and all that stuff! When I was in my 40’s, I asked a group of women could we please talk about what our bodies were going through. I didn’t realize I was in perimenopause and felt slightly crazy. The women weren’t willing to talk about it!! Now at 59, I am 8 yrs post menopause and 2 yrs of it were a sonofabitch. I tried bio identical HRT for 1 ½ yrs but it didn’t help. Yes, for goodness sakes, let’s talk about it- the good, bad, and ugly of it- especially for those who are in confusion about it.

  18. I don’t exactly enjoy the test but the staff are all very nice & it’s only seconds . Our centre is in a small terraced house & you are in & out in minutes , really efficient . We are lucky to have the service , the NHS is about the same age as me & I always feel I’ve been very fortunate . I’m so glad they’ve brought in the bowel cancer tests too which is in my family . Always feel like celebrating when I get the all clear for that .

  19. We must talk about menopause. It’s a fact of life and it’s nothing to be ashamed of or try to hide. We’re getting older, not worse! I have a mammogram yearly because my Mom had breast cancer.

  20. We’ve gotten used, as a society, to saying “breast” out loud. Just barely getting used to “vagina.” But words like “perineum?” “Labia?” Heavens to Betsy! I’m particularly decorous on my blog, can’t even write about chin hair, so I won’t be writing about this either. Probably, never say never. I’m far less decorous in person, but even so, it’s been hard for me to say these words, even to my beloved sisters, as we all wend our way through the effects of profound hormonal shifts. Thank you, in advance, for taking this on.

  21. Here in the states at least,more women are getting breast cancer in their 40’s. My sister had stage 3 at 47. (10 years later she’s fine,thanks) Two neighbors were just diagnosed-one 48 , and hers is genetic, and one is 42- it was found in her first mammogram . First one. Stage 4. No symptoms. She will be getting a mastectomy, 4 months of chemo and radiation.(She may have to leave her job as an elementary school teacher) Women in their 20’s are now getting it, and no one knows why. I have been getting mammograms since my 30’s.Ladies, don’t wait until 50. I pay out of pocket for the 3D imaging and ultrasound. More conclusive that the cheaper “paid for by insurance ” older methods. Odds of getting breast cancer are 1 in 4. Many women who get it are under 50. This is not where you want to save money.

  22. I too have been doing it since my 30’s…. don’t regret keeping a check. Now 58 and done menopause. Discuss it quite freely about and I don’t feel embarrassed … even in the presence of men. 🙂

  23. It is great that you brings a lot of subject to discuss here.
    We also have preventive mammograms and bowel cancers tests covered by insurance( and yes,buses for it too),even MR of breasts if needed. And if you suspect anything before and talk with your GP ,insurance will cover tests.
    I agree with Rosie and strongly recommend self examination in between,or to check it with your GP. Mammogram and ultrasound show slightly different things, it is for doctors to choose,and certainly those two together complete the picture. I had my first mammogram and punction when 24 (no breast cancer in family),because I found little lump,but it was benign,thanks Good
    Great blog!
    Dottoressa

  24. I’m 45 and just starting on this menopause journey – any advice from the women who’ve gone before me is ALWAYS welcome.

  25. Agree entirely about the brilliance of the mammogram. But constantly talking about menopause makes me want to scream. It is just something that will happen to every woman who is lucky enough to live into her 50s. It is not the end of the world, just rather boring at times. As far as I know, you do not die of menopause and no, of course men do not want to talk about it. Why would they? I don’t and I’ve been through it. I am not defined by my hormones and never have been. It isn’t the menopause women fear, it is getting old. Otherwise nobody would be able to sell hair colourant. And women fear getting old because they are afraid men won’t want them anymore. I am off to sit in the sun with a coffee. I suggest we all do that and stop ruminating about the loss of our “femaleness”… dear God in Heaven….
    First world “problem”.

  26. Hello Annie G, and thanks for your comment. I’m not defined by my hormones either, I am also not concerned about whether ‘men want me anymore.’ And I disagree, there isn’t a constant conversation about the menopause, which is why women are happy to talk about it (here or elsewhere) in order try to stop it being such a taboo subject. At least we can agree on the coffee and sunshine…

  27. Great post. I am 60 and post-menopause for 10 years! The annual physicals are so very important and to keep up with my yearly mammogram and pap, I schedule all for the week before my birthday (as a present to myself)!!!
    My menopause story is so strange because I went through it unknowingly without many of the symptoms. No one likes to talk about “it” but if I had known what to expect I would have realized that it was over two years prior to being told by my doctor!!!! Not complaining though

  28. Screening mammograms do more harm than good

    Screening mammograms are next to worthless. We have been telling you this for nearly ten years. They do not save lives. In fact the group of women who have significantly less mortality over the last twenty years are younger women who don´t go near them! So says a 2013 study from Oxford University.

    But we are not gloating. We are angry. For all the women who have been consistently misled by the ´status quo´; the mythology of cancer treatment in the UK. Like mammograms, other orthodox skeletons will be coming out of the cupboard over the next few years.

    For ten years we have actually argued that the research evidence shows screening mammograms do more harm than good. For every woman whose life is saved (and that´s debatable in the light of the latest research), three women or more are unnecessarily treated; their lives put at risk with radiation and toxic chemicals.

    In 2012 Professor Mike Richards, the UK cancer ´tsar´ announced that screening mammograms may save 1,300 lives a year in the UK but result in 4,000 women being mis-diagnosed and even needlessly treated.

    The new research is clear that they don´t save even 1,300 lives. But as you will see, research we presented 5 years ago said that too.

    In 2012 the highly respected Nordic Cochrane Centre produced a leaflet listing the benefits and harm of screening mammograms and concluded that screening mammograms caused more harm than good!

    CANCERactive has been consistent for more than 8 years. That´s when this article you are reading now was started. It has been updated frequently with the latest research. But the stance and the overall conclusions have never changed. And now we are vindicated; our conclusions all along shown to be right.

    The fact is (as you can read below) there was never much evidence to support the 1,300 figure – it is zero in other studies. Worse, if women have an inherited DNA problem, having an annual screening mammogram increases their risk of the disease! The mammogram is not even early diagnosis. In the development work on a new screening blood test, the researchers point out that a mammogram only picks up a tumour when it is of a certain size – a size produced by about 20 cell divisions. At 40 you´re dead!

    Finally, if scientists set out to develop a screening technique for breast cancer tomorrow, do you think it would involve two large metal plates, squeezing, radiation flowing and be only 65 per cent accurate at best?! If someone proposed this they would be laughed at. Unfortunately, as 4,000 women a year in the UK know to their cost – it is no laughing matter!

    And that is our biggest concern. If screening mammography effectiveness had been properly questioned ten years ago, we might have spent some of the vast, wasted funds on developing simple, effective blood tests that caught the cancer at a far earlier stage and were more consistent and reliable. How many women have been unnecessarily treated in the last ten years? How many women have died needlessly?

    *******************************************

    To summarise the Nordic Cochrane report that caused the fuss in 2011:

    If 2,000 women are regularly screened for 10 years

    * One woman will benefit and will avoid dying fom breast cancer

    * 200 women will receive false positives

    * 10 women will be unnecessarily treated with surgery, radio- and/or chemotherapy, increasing her risks of dying from heart problems and even cancer.

    Are they right? Researchers at Southampton University set out to ´assess the claim in the Cochrane report that mammographic breast cancer screening could be doing more harm than good´. The findings, published in the British Medical Journal, December 2011 agreed with Cochrane and stated that mammograms indeed have ´caused net harm´. James Raftery, lead researcher added,”The default is to assume that screening must be good; catching something early must be good, but if a woman has an unnecessary mastectomy, or chemotherapy or radiation, that´s a tragedy. It´s difficult to balance the gain of one life against 200 false positives and 10 unnecessary surgeries”.

    1. I’m not familiar with blood tests for breast cancer so I did some reading. Are you referring to the Blood Tumor Marker test? An article I read said the test isn’t useful for early stage cancer. What are we to do in place of mammos?

  29. Deborah – thank you so much for your extensive comment. You obviously know a lot more about the subject than I do. As I mentioned in the post, I do feel poorly informed. Thanks for including all this information, particularly the blood test vs the machine, which makes absolute sense. When I was being screened I did think that the machine technique was slightly ridiculous….

  30. Hi “J”, a good indicator of how one’s menopause will affect her is to consider other hormonal fluxes in her life- PMS, pregnancy, postpartum and breastfeeding. Were they especially emotional? Were there symptoms of depression?It’s also useful to remember back to one’s mother’s menopause. I realize some readers of this blog will find this off-putting but it’s not a taboo subject for many Americans. We may not remember our mothers’ actually uttering words such as “the change of life”, but we may remember them having rather extreme emotions around the age of 50!

    If you want to discuss it more, perhaps I could give me my email address. Also, check into women’s health books written in very recent years. There is so much good information out there now.

  31. Interesting that you wait until 50. In the US, or at least Boston, we have yearly mammograms starting at age 40 (30 if there is a maternal history of breast cancer). 50 is the year of the colonoscopy!

  32. Thanks for this very informative post – loved reading the article! And all the comments. I’m going through it all at the moment and as a teacher just can’t cope with the hot flushes so have opted for the HRT route which works for me – especially as it’s a gel that I apply to my arms so it doesn’t feel as harmful as ingesting something into my body. My mother always maintained that women who had menopause symptoms were just atttention-seeking but my experience has been so different to hers. We definitely need to talk more about it and to lift the stigma. Knowing that you are not the only one who feels dried out, halfway to death is already a great consolation.

  33. I’ve just read through all the comments and feel that I should relay my own experience. At 39 my doctor suggested I get a mammogram because I was “almost 40”. I live in Hong Kong and apparently this is normal. In NZ where I’m from we follow the NHS age screening programme. So just before I turned 40 I had a (very uncomfortable) mammogram and an ultrasound. The mammogram picked up nothing but the ultrasound showed a lump with an irregular outline, in other words not appearing to be a regular cyst – I have very dense cystic breasts. I had a fine needle biopsy which was inconclusive. I opted to monitor it for a year rather than go through more invasive procedures. After a year I was advised that the lump had increased in size. I consulted a breast surgeon who did a core needle biopsy on the spot (extremely painful) and chastised me for opting for the wait and see approach. Turns out my cyst was cancerous, huge shock, and the results after a lumpectomy was a Stage 1, Grade 2, hormone sensitive tumour. Luckily it had not spread to my lymph nodes. I had 6 weeks of radiation (excessive in this day and age, especially for a low grade tumour; I was told by a more progressive oncologist that 4 weeks is sufficient) but didn’t need chemo, thank goodness. I’m 3 years on and cancer free. I get checked annually and despite being told that the “golden standard” for breast cancer monitoring is mammogram plus ultrasound I continue to refuse mammograms (I am considered difficult here), this is my personal choice as an ultrasound is more reliable considering the density of my breasts. I have also refused the menopausal inducing Tamoxifen treatment as I judged my risk / cost analysis low. I have to stress that there is no ‘one size fits all’ for screening or treatment. Lumping us all together is ridiculous and potentially dangerous. Breast cancer does kill and has killed people I know, it is important to screen but get to know your breasts and do your own breast exams at home weekly. I don’t normally share but I hope my story means something to someone.

  34. I love your site. About mammograms, as much as we ladies over 50 want to take care of our health, a lot has been written about the dangers of mammograms. Having had various cancers in my family and myself (skin) I am ultra careful. But I will not being having many more mammograms after my research. I suggest the amazing series on cancer: The Truth about Cancer for anyone who is touched by the disease or wants to know more about prevention and treatment. There is an amazing multi part video series as well. Good health

  35. Just found your blog, and loved this post and the link to the fabulous article that expressed beautifully every badly formed thought in my head around the subject. At 51 I feel like a deer in the menopausal headlights, waiting for the end with trepidation. Would love to follow in the footsteps of the lady who said she was “too busy to notice”. So far so good with no issues other than being able to cry at the drop of the hat and realizing most of the stuff I cared deeply about in my 30’s was a big waste of time. With three daughters, I’d like to be able to give them wisdom. Of course they don’t want to hear any! Such is life.

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