Testing for cancer


A specialist in mammograms tries to put patients at ease and keep them informed


October 11, 2006|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,Special to the Sun

Christine Cullings

Mammography technologist

Franklin Square Hospital Center, Baltimore County

Age --53

Years in business --33

Salary --$61,000

How she got started --Cullings knew she wanted to go into the health care field. So after her stepfather suggested radiology, she graduated from what was the Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Radiologic Technology. She started working in oral surgery taking dental X-rays, then three years later moved to general radiology at Johns Hopkins.

She learned how to do mammograms in the early 1980s and as the field became more specialized this became her primary task. In 1992 she passed the required state certification. Two years ago she took a job with Franklin Square Hospital to be closer to home.

Typical day --Cullings works four, 10-hour days with Friday and weekends off. A typical mammogram takes about 15 to 30 minutes and she usually does about five each day. Part of this involves explaining the procedure to the patients, answering questions and making them feel comfortable. Wednesdays are for biopsies. She assists in stereotactic breast biopsies, where a tissue sample is removed, and in-needle localization biopsies, where a needle is used to locate a mass that can be seen on a mammogram but cannot be felt.

The good --Interaction with the patients. "You have to be a real compassionate person and be able to explain why you're doing what you're doing." She added that taking the best X-ray films she can and perhaps catching a cancer in the early stage is the best reward. "There's nothing better than the hugs and stuff you get from the patients."

The bad --"Being on your feet a lot."

Advice to patients --Cullings said she is not allowed to discuss what she sees on the films with the patients - that's the doctor's job. "They'll ask, but you can't say anything. My answer is, `The doctor is the one who is going to look at it and is the one who has the last word on what she sees.' "

Her niche --She said she knew right away that specializing in taking mammograms was her thing. "I found it was something I really was good at and I really enjoyed doing."

Technological change --When Cullings started in the job, no dedicated mammography machines existed. Instead, a regular X-ray machine was used. "The exposure was unbelievably high." The machine she now uses takes a film of the breasts that develops in about 90 seconds. Some hospitals are switching to digital machines for instant images.

Philosophy on the job --"To make sure you're getting the best film you possible can ... so they can find something in the earliest stages if there is anything there. And also to try and be as compassionate as I can."

Extracurricular --Cullings is enrolled in the massage therapy program at the Community College of Baltimore County, Essex, which she says she may pursue as a second career to fall back on once she hits retirement.

Nancy Jones-Bonbrest Special to The Sun

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