Huffpost Women
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Nina Montée Karp Headshot

A Lifesaving Tip: What to Demand at Your Next Mammogram

Posted: Updated:

You'd never drive a car without a seatbelt... or bolt across a street without looking both ways, right? These simple steps help you avoid potentially devastating risks. But did you know that when getting a mammogram, you can also sidestep a devastating potential side effect by doing one simple thing? Ask for a lead shield!

I'm a breast cancer activist. I take my health very seriously. Staying healthy is all about being smart now to protect ourselves in the future. That's why, besides a smart diet, daily exercise, avoiding toxins and never smoking, it's important for all women to pay attention to early breast cancer detection. I'm diligent about having mammograms. (Mammograms don't cure cancer, but they can help find it early, when it's most treatable.) But on a recent visit to the radiologist, I was alarmed to learn that the very test meant to detect cancer can expose other parts of our bodies -- in particular the thyroid gland -- to radiation that could potentially lead to cancer!

That day, my husband (a pediatrician) accompanied me to the doctor's office. He was surprised to see that the nurse didn't automatically offer a little scarf-width lead shield to cover my neck and protect my thyroid. When he asked about it, she informed us that they don't use thyroid guards unless the patient specifically requests it.

What?! How could I ask for something that I didn't even know existed? (And FYI, this type of radiation risk can also happen from dental X-rays, CAT scans and other X-ray tests).

Most of us don't have medical degrees, and if it weren't for my loving husband coming to be with me, I would never have known about this problem. What made matters worse was the nurse's attitude. Even thought the guard was within arm's reach, she made me feel we were making an unusual -- almost neurotic -- request. (I get furious when I think of all the women who are made to feel embarrassed when they asked for something that could save their lives.)

My goal, of course, is not meant to create concern or fear or discourage you from having mammograms. I am a firm believer that all woman over 40 should get them as a part of their routine cancer prevention. However, like any medical X-ray tests, mammograms inherently run a tiny risk because radiation is a known cancer trigger. And, even though the X-ray beam is narrowly focused on the breast, there is a little bit of "scatter" of radiation that can land on your thyroid or other sensitive areas. (My husband asked the nurse to bring a lead apron to place over my ovaries to protect them... a request that she seemed to think was tantamout to full-blown hysteria!)

Many doctors claim that there's no proven risk from mammograms. But to me, there must be a good reason why the radiation techs always leave the room or hide behind a protective wall of leaded glass when they X-ray you.

According to a national cancer survey, thyroid cancer is still on the rise. It accounts for 1/200 of all U.S. cancer deaths each year. In fact, the thyroid cancer among women has more than doubled over the past 10 years: In 2005, there were 19,190 cases... rising to 43,210 in 2012.

The Light of Life Foundation noted that, "thyroid cancer in women is rising faster than any other cancer in the United States. Some think that this rise is from the early diagnosis of very small thyroid cancers. Other researchers worry that some unknown trigger is causing the thyroid cancer doubling."

Bottom line: When it comes to health care, be your own advocate!

• Do some research -- before your visit -- to learn the latest about mammograms.
• Ask your doctor what's new in the field... what are your options?
• Spread the word! Tell your mom, grandmothers and friends to use a thyroid guard and ovary shield for all X-ray tests.

We don't yet have definite proof linking thyroid cancer and X-rays, but why take any risk that you can avoid as easily as buckling up a seat belt?

For more information about preventing and recovering from breast cancer, visit our website: The Path of Wellness and Healing.