The Importance of Mammograms Through a Radiographer’s Eyes: A Discussion With Myrtle McConaghy

Bronagh McStravick

19th Oct 2023
The Importance of Mammograms Through a Radiographer’s Eyes: A Discussion With Myrtle McConaghy

October marks Breast Cancer Awareness month. At Cirdan, we are passionate about women’s health and advocate for regular checks, both personally and professionally, in order that women can receive the help and treatment they need. We spoke with Myrtle McConaghy, former radiographer in Ulster Hospital about breast health and the importance of attending regular checks and finding cancer in its early stages. Here’s what she had to say.

What do we mean by Breast Cancer Screening? 

The NHS Northern Ireland Breast Screening Programme commenced in 1988. It provides all women aged 50-70 years, who are registered with a GP, for breast screening by mammography every 3 years. Women over 70 are not automatically invited for screening but are encouraged to make their own appointment with their local Screening centre.

Women aged 40–50 years and 70+ years can attend Action Cancer who also provide a screening mammography service.

Both these services are for women who have no signs or symptoms of breast disease. Anyone with symptoms should be examined by their GP who will subsequently make a referral to a Symptomatic Breast clinic in one of the Trusts. If needed. There they will have a Clinical examination by a Specialist Doctor, undergo a diagnostic Mammogram and/or Ultrasound if indicated and have further tests carried out when required. 

What is a mammogram and what is the process involved? 

Mammography (a mammogram) is a specialized type of medical imaging that uses a low dose x-ray system to produce high quality, fine detail images of the breast.  

You will be asked a few questions about any breast symptoms or problems, previous surgeries, hormone use, whether you have a family or personal history of breast cancer. The mammographer, ( a radiographer who has undertaken additional post-graduate training in mammography) will explain the examination. She will then position each breast in turn onto the X-ray support table. When the breast is accurately positioned, she will slowly lower a Perspex plate onto the breast which will provide compression to the breast. Compression is used to minimize blurring due to movement, evens out the breast tissue, reduces radiation dose and prevents overlapping of breast tissue to ensure the images are of a high quality. It feels a little tight but is not painful and will only be in place for a few seconds while each image is taken. A normal mammogram consists of 2 images of each breast. The mammographer will check the images to ensure they are of an acceptable quality before you leave.  

The mammogram images will be reported by a Breast Radiologist or Advanced Mammography Practitioner and you will receive the results within a couple of weeks. If any further imaging is required you will be recalled to an assessment clinic where you will see a Clinician and have the additional imaging carried out. This could be an Ultrasound scan or Digital Tomosynthesis which is similar to a mammogram but produces more detailed images of the breast (3-D imaging). In addition, if required, a core biopsy will be performed. About 4 out of every 100 women screened are recalled and of these 4 people recalled, 3 will receive normal results. 

Why should you attend a screening mammogram appointment? 

Screening mammograms are performed to detect possible signs of breast cancer before it can be felt or any symptoms are experienced.  The goal of mammography is the early detection of breast cancer when it is potentially easier to treat and with better outcomes. 

The breast tissue is examined for the presence of any abnormalities, such as characteristic masses, distortion of breast tissue, microcalcifications and asymmetry between the tissue in both breasts. 

The Breast Screening Programme finds cancer in around 9 out of every 1000 women attending for screening.  Cancer Research UK  

What are the benefits of having a mammogram? 

Approximately 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. 

Finding breast cancer early means that the disease is less likely to have spread and treatment can be started earlier in the course of the disease with potentially less invasive surgical procedures required. The chances of long-term survival are highest early in the disease process. Self examination of the breasts along with regular screening mammography (with follow-up tests and treatment, if diagnosed) reduces the chance of dying from breast cancer. Please attend for your mammograms! 

Tell us a little about your career in the NHS. 

I began my career in Radiography as a student radiographer in the class of 1982 at Londonderry School of Radiography, Altnagelvin Hospital. Training has since moved to the University of Ulster. I have worked in Route Hospital (Ballymoney), Belfast City Hospital, Bangor, Ards and the Ulster Hospital with a few sessions in the Ulster Independent Clinic. I ended my career earlier this year as Principal Lead Mammographer in the Ulster Hospital. I initially worked in the general x-ray departments and from 1992 worked in CT. In 2001 I completed Post grad certificate in mammography and in 2009 completed Masters in Stereotactic Breast procedures when I became an Advanced Practitioner. This enabled me to perform conventional core, and vacuum-assisted core biopsies using stereotactic and tomosynthesis guidance and the placement of localization wires and Magseeds. Although working in the NHS can be a struggle at times, I have thoroughly enjoyed my career. Within the Breast team, I have had the greatest privilege of helping patients at a very vulnerable time in their lives. Although I can think of many challenges and highlights, I can honestly say that the greatest fulfilment has come from the relationships formed with countless patients and from being able to make their journeys a little easier – both in the performing of interventional procedures and in being able to show love and care to them and their families. I also am very grateful for my colleagues with whom I have worked with day and night for many years, but a special mention to the wonderful mammography team with whom I have had the greatest pleasure to work alongside, lead and help train and mentor – they were the best team ever! 

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About Cirdan

Cirdan is a leading provider of diagnostic digital health and imaging solutions that enhance and speed up patient clinical pathways and pathology laboratory work. Headquartered in the UK, with offices in North America and Australia, Cirdan is recognised as one of the fastest-growing clinical Laboratory Information Systems (LIS) providers in the UK and Australia.