October is busy time for mammograms

Published 1:22 am Sunday, October 25, 2015

The following story appeared in The Natchez Democrat’s pink special edition Sunday to raise breast cancer awareness.

By Lindsey Shelton and Leah Schwarting

NATCHEZ — October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so it’s not surprising it’s the busiest time of year for area mammography technologists.

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“You often don’t think about (mammograms) any other time of the year, so when October rolls around, everyone is thinking about it,” said Tonya Womack, mammography technologist at Riverpark Medical Center in Vidalia.

Many women are nervous about mammograms, and technologists at Merit Health Natchez and Riverpark say they take pride in comforting their patients through the process.

“They’re usually all scared and nervous, and we’re there to calm all their fears,” said Mandie Keith, a radiologic technologist at Merit Health Natchez.

Keith works with mammography technologist Sharree Griffin, and the two say they enjoy their jobs and their patients.

Griffin has a long history with X-rays, having been born with heart vessels which were turned backwards. Griffin had her first open heart surgery when she was eight weeks old, and has had X-rays her whole life.

After so much exposure, Griffin said she became interested in the x-ray field and worked in it until 1991 when Griffin was asked by the department’s mammography technologist if she wanted to learn how to do mammograms.

“I’ve loved it ever since,” Griffin said.

Keith’s grandmother battled breast cancer and inspired Keith to go into the field.

“It encouraged me to want to help other women who could possibly have breast cancer,” Keith said.

Helping women through what can be a nerve-wracking experience sometimes takes warmth a little bit of humor, Womack said.

“We have warm gowns, and patients will put them on and say, ‘Oh, this is so nice and warm,’” Womack said. “I tell them I’m just trying to butter them up for what’s about to come, and they usually get a kick out of that.”

Lightening the mood, talking about the weather and relating to the patients can help ensure they have a good experience, Riverpark mammography technologist Katherine Clayton said.

“You want to make sure they have a good experience, so they keep coming back year after year, because it’s so important to get mammograms,” Clayton said.

Griffin said women can be also self-conscious about their breast size, something she tells them not to worry about.

“If we can do men, we can do any size woman in here,” Griffin said jokingly.

Both women say they often joke with their patients.

“We try to ease the tension,” Keith said. “We try to relate to them.”

Tension may run higher during some mammograms than others. After a screening, something abnormal can be found, which results in a diagnostic mammography to find out more.

“If there’s anything seen on the mammogram, then their doctor’s office will call them,” Keith said, saying offices usually contact patients back in a day or so after the mammogram.

When patients have to come back for a diagnostic mammography, Keith said she often tells them 90 percent of callbacks are benign. But, when it’s not, the women will help take a third mammogram and, in many cases, assist with biopsies and conduct follow-up mammograms.

Clayton said she ensures patients that most of the time, further testing shows they do not have breast cancer. Clayton said she finds informing the patients of what comes next helps soothe their worries.

“I try to tell them what to expect and prepare them by saying, ‘This is what you’re going to have to do next,’ and tell them not be frightened,” she said.

Between follow-ups and yearly check-ups, Griffin said she’s gotten close to her patients, both the ones who have been diagnosed and those who come back for yearly screenings.

“You become a little family,” Griffin said.

And, over time, both women have stories to tell of their experiences.

Last week, Keith said she had a patient who had a double mastectomy. Instead of being down, like Keith said someone might expect, she was cheerful.

“She really had a positive effect on me and I really love that part of my job,” Keith said.