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Health: Pressing Concerns

Photography by Emily Watson
Photography by Emily Watson

New mammography technology is nice, but it’s no Star Trek diagnostic wand

Allow me to enlighten those with no close, middle-aged female loved-ones: Mammograms are right up there with prostate exams and colonoscopies on the list of dreaded routine procedures. Worse, the American Cancer Society and several other health organizations recommend having them regularly (frequency varies depending on age and risk factors).

As a 49-year-old woman with a family history of cancer, I’ve had my share of mammograms. So when GE’s press flack told me that Las Vegas had gotten its first mammography machine designed — “by women for women!” — to make the procedure more comfortable, well, I wouldn’t say I jumped at the chance to try it, but I did agree to take one for the team.

The Senographe Pristina and the room where it’s housed at Steinberg Diagnostics, the first local radiology clinic to get the new machine, aren’t remarkably different from the norm: a phone-booth-sized device standing in the middle of the beige Linoleum-tiled floor; an X-ray unit that rotates to shoot at a variety of angles; a Plexiglas-plated control station in the corner.

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As for the Pristina’s comfort-specific differences, they’re minor. The plates and paddles used to compress the breast (a necessary evil for capturing useful images) have rounded edges that don’t cut into your armpits and rib cage. Handles that help to keep patients still have been replaced by finger rests, deterring muscle flexion, which increases compression pain. And overall, the apparatus is smaller than others, meant to render it less intimidating.

But let’s be honest: It’s not the square edges or handholds or machine size that make a mammogram feel like torture; it’s the compression. And the technology that eliminates the need for compression during a mammogram doesn’t exist yet, anywhere. (Desert Radiology’s head of mammography also noted that most machines have rounded edges these days.)

Really, the thing that still makes the biggest difference is the imaging technology itself. If possible, opt for the 3-D mammogram, which all the local clinics now offer, because it improves your early-detection chances and decreases your false-positive risk compared with the standard 2-D. That may help you breathe easier, even as you’re gripping those handles.

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.