I got my annual squishogram this morning! For those of you who need the proper medical term, I’m talking about getting a mammogram. Those of us ladies who are of a “certain age” (40 and over) need to be vigilant about getting annual mammograms in addition to performing monthly breast self exams. There are a number of websites and phone apps that can assist in reminding us to do our monthly exams and schedule yearly mammograms. Technology is a wonderful thing!

Recently Haaretz ran an article highlighting findings by the Health Ministry and the Israel Cancer Association (ICA) that revealed a sharp drop in deaths from breast cancer in Israel over the last decade.  According to an OECD report released in June, Israel ranked sixth highest in terms of Breast Cancer mortality rates among OECD nations.  The ICA report says that there are some 19,493 women in Israel who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, have recovered, or are still struggling with the disease. Some 79 percent of sufferers are women over the age of 50.

The women in the ICA survey were aware that leading a healthy lifestyle can greatly reduce the risk of cancer. Some of those healthy guidelines include exercise, nutritious diet, limited alcohol consumption, and no cigarettes or drugs.

Many participants did not necessarily live their lives according to those general guidelines that would decrease their cancer risk. The study found that:

58 percent of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women were overweight, compared to 41 percent of Arab Women and 50 percent of all Jewish women. Secular women were more likely to smoke and consume alcohol, according to the survey, while Arab women do little exercise.

While the women were aware of the importance of early detection methods such as self exam and mammograms, the more religious among the survey participants, attributed their ultimate health to divine intervention:

Some 17 percent of Haredi women said that prayers were among the factors that help decrease the risk of developing cancer, while 11 percent of Arab women saw cancer as the will of God, believing that nothing can be done to prevent it.

The New York Times recently ran an article with a provocative cover photo, showing an unnamed 28-year-old Israeli breast cancer survivor revealing her lumpectomy scar directly below her Star of David tattoo. While the photo got more attention than the article itself, the message of the piece was to advocate for a universal screening program that would identify an estimated 30,000 Israeli women who have the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations.

The Times article goes on to say that a number of influential geneticists and cancer doctors from various medical centers have proposed that the Israeli Health Ministry should pay for free voluntary genetic testing of all Ashkenazi women over the age of 25. These specialists estimate that around a million women would be covered, at a cost of less than $100 per test. Those who test positive for the mutations would be strongly encouraged to complete child bearing by their late 30s so they could have their ovaries removed by age 40. Risk reducing mastectomies would also be offered.

Medical science is getting better at identifying cancer and genetic cancer risks earlier than ever before. However, there is fear in that knowledge. Some women would rather not know if they are at risk or even if they currently have a cancerous tumor. While the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations are on a whole other preventative care level, having a mammogram is not the first step before having a radical mastectomy. In most cases, mammograms will come out normal. If there is a problem, there are many more tests and options to try before resorting to complete breast removal. Again, the sooner a problem is caught, the lower the chances are that an extreme solution will be needed.

As is the case in Israel, here in America getting a mammogram is quick, easy, and relatively painless. In fact, getting a mammogram is so easy, that I got mine standing on one leg! I did this because my other leg is broken, and also because it wasn’t the appendage needing to be positioned between two plates!

When I called to schedule my mammogram, I was asked a few questions about my basic health history. Is this an annual screening or is this a follow-up mammogram? Have I been having any pain or problems?  Have I ever been diagnosed with breast cancer? Do I have breast implants? Am I currently breast feeding or have I breast fed within the past six months? Do I have a family history of breast cancer?

I was told not to wear any deodorant or lotion on the day of my mammogram. I was also told that taking Ibuprofen about thirty minutes before my appointment would lessen any discomfort if I was particularly sensitive.

When I showed up for my mammogram, I was asked to fill out a short questionnaire about my general health, if I’d had children before age 30, and my breast health. After filling out the form, I was escorted to a changing room area where I was told to remove everything from the waist up and put on a short hospital gown. It’s important to wear a separate top and skirt so that you don’t have to remove an entire dress. The gown they give you is really more of a hospital top and doesn’t cover your lower half. I was given a little locker to stow away my things and shortly thereafter was taken into the room with the mammogram imaging machine.

The technician was very kind and patient, making sure that I was standing securely as she prepared me for taking the images. She took four images, a front and side view of each breast. The technician needs to position the breast between two plates and squeeze the breast tissue between them in order to get a detailed image. Once you are positioned properly, the technician goes to the camera and tells you to hold your breath for a few seconds as the image is being recorded. Once the images are completed, you are taken back to the changing area and can be on your way! You are notified within two weeks of the results. You will either be told that all is well and you are set until next year’s mammogram, or you will be asked to come in for follow up images.

The first year I did a baseline mammogram at age 40, I was asked to come in for follow up images. I am not going to lie – I was terrified that I might have breast cancer. I was told that it is quite common to find benign cysts or small tumors in breasts, but even so, I was on pins and needles until the follow up results were shown to be clear. Going through a breast ultrasound and needle biopsy only reinforced the need for early detection. After that first questionable mammogram, I realized that I could have unknowingly had a cancerous growth spreading for months or years. From that point on I knew the importance of catching potential problems early. That’s why I am committed to getting a mammogram each year.

While I believe that Hashem has a hand in everything, and a good dose of prayer never hurts, I also believe that we need to use every medical technology at our disposal in conjunction with that divine assistance.  Toward that end, I encourage every woman over 40 to get squished!  You’re worth it!