As far as conversations about your breasts go, cancer screenings aren’t exactly the most fun topic. Mammograms are a powerful tool for catching breast cancer early, but they’re also, let’s be honest, extremely uncomfortable. According to current guidelines, women should be getting screened once a year starting at age 40, but even that’s too much for some of us—studies estimate anywhere from 25 to 46 percent of women skip their regular screenings.
To improve the exams, who better to ask for insight than women getting them? An all-female team of engineers at GE Healthcare did just that when developing their latest breast cancer screening technology. The goal: “How do we get patients to, quite frankly, not hate this exam?” Kathleen Schindler, global mammography clinical product leader at GE, explains.
Instead of an anxiety-inducing, awkward experience, they wanted to design a mammogram process created by females, for females. “Women are the ones who are having the exams done and women are [often] the people who are performing the exam, as well,” Schindler says. “If we’re going to really focus on why women don’t like having mammograms, then we should be talking to women. It’s an incredibly intimate and powerful exam—the patient should be involved, not just simply having the exam done to them.”
After talking to over 1,000 mammography technologists, radiologists and patients, the answer was clear: To make mammograms suck less, put the women having them in control.
Called “Senographe Pristina,” the resulting mammogram technology developed by GE’s team of female engineers allows you—the patient—to control the speed and intensity of the screening using a small handheld device called Pristina Dueta. After the mammography technologist positions your breast, you get to control the compression using plus and minus buttons. “You know where your limit is more than I do,” Schindler says, speaking as a former mammography technologist.
So, when exactly does getting a mammogram matter? “Women should begin screening mammography at age 40 and continue yearly mammograms as long as they are healthy,” says Laurie Margolies, M.D., system chief of breast imaging at Mount Sinai Health System. (Official guidelines vary: The American Cancer Society advices starting yearly screenings at 45.)
That said, there are a few risk factors that might prompt you to start screening in your 30s or even younger. “The most common risk factor for early screening is a family history in a first-degree relative (i.e., your mother, sister or daughter),” says Margolies. In these cases, doctors recommend you start getting mammograms 10 years before the age your relative was diagnosed. So, if your mom was diagnosed with breast cancer at 37, you’d want to start getting screened at 27.
To assess your individual risk, online tools like Bright Pink’s Assess Your Risk Quiz can help, but always make sure to talk to your doctor to create the health plan that makes the most sense for you and your breasts.