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Women have the right to know that there is help to reduce pain during mammograms

3 min read

Labour Peer Baroness Massey calls for increased access to breast cushions to help women avoid discomfort and pain during mammograms

Breast screening is an important part of women’s health. More than two million are screened every year. It saves one life for every 200 screened – more than 1,300 a year.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women, yet some do not return for check-ups because of the pain involved in the procedure. Some find it excruciating. They can feel faint or stop the examination, and some feel sore afterwards. To obtain accurate readings, the mammography machine needs to compress the breast. Pain especially affects women with dense breast tissue.

The breast cushion is a soft foam pad which is placed between the woman’s breast and the mammography machine, resulting in in a more comfortable experience. Designed by a female breast surgeon, each cushion costs about £2 each.

Most women I have asked in the UK have never heard of these cushions. I was alerted to them by a neighbour who has lived in the Netherlands, where they are routinely on offer during mammograms. On returning to England, she was shocked to have to contact the manufacturer and then track down a centre where they are used for pain relief. Only one hospital in England – the Countess of Chester – offers such a facility.

In talking to friends and colleagues who have had mammograms, not one had been alerted to the possibility of pain reduction. Yet most had suffered – some to an extreme level. Screening uptake is falling in the UK, down from 74.8% in 2005-6 to 71.1% in the most recent statistics available – with a 1% fall in the last year alone. A study in 2013 estimated that in England, 47,000 to 87,000 women each year do not re-attend screening because of the pain involved. 

This presents a serious public health issue. The cost of using breast cushions would be minimal in relation to the cost of cancer treatment. Not all women would require them but it is surely unfair to expect any woman to suffer pain during a routine examination.

Other interventions to reduce pain in mammography have been trialled. These include giving women written or verbal information about the procedure, analgesics to be taken beforehand and increasing women’s control of breast compression. (There was however, no reduction in pain when the mammography technologist reduced the compression force.)

Nothing seems to have any effect apart from the breast cushions. Although some reports suggest the image quality of the mammogram may be reduced in a very small subset of women, probably due to the difficulty in positioning the breast without visual clues.

Today in the Lords, I will ask the government to conduct an inquiry on why more mammography units do not offer women the choice of using breast cushions. It seems incredible that so little is known about the possibility of reducing pain during mammograms. Women in our country have the right to know that there is help for what can be a real ordeal – and which sadly makes them think twice about a return visit.


Baroness Doreen Massey of Darwen is a Labour Peer

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