October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, to raise awareness, Amy Marquez of Jackson, MS, shares with Sunnyhuckle readers the humorous travails of her first mammogram more than a decade ago. This article may not be suitable for younger readers or for our more squeamish readers…so, fair warning.
By Amy Marquez
Let me state firmly, I am a proponent of mammography.
My mom’s cancer was discovered by a mammogram. I have two friends who developed breast cancer in their 20s, one of whom didn’t make it. I think mammograms should be mandatory for women of a certain age or family history, like measles shots should be mandatory for 6-year-olds (a rant for another time). So, I’m a fan.
Having to actually get a mammogram, however, is a different story.
At the doctor’s office for my first ever mammogram, I look for the exam room with a sense of pride and purpose. I am doing something healthy. As I don’t do healthy things that often, I feel good about my visit.
The nurse showed me to a seat and gave me a form to fill out. Name. Date of Birth. Address. Etc.
Then came the questions.
Are you experiencing any discharge from either breast?
Ick. I circle “No.”
Are you currently nursing?
Nursing implies having a baby, which implies pregnancy, which implies sex, which requires something akin to a romantic life. I circle “No,” again.
Has any member of your immediate family been diagnosed with breast cancer?
I draw a big circle around “Yes” and write out “My mom” next to it.
Are you currently taking any hormones?
Here, I was unsure. I’m on the pill, but only because it keeps my period from lasting 12 days and eases my horrendous cramps. I don’t tend to think of them as hormones.
A lab technician walks by and I ask, “Does the pill count as hormones?” She looks at me as if I have asked, “Are these things on my hands fingers?” and says, “Of course.”
I circle “Yes.”
Below the questions there are drawings of breasts—nice breasts. (I would imagine that if a guy were to draw ideal breasts, they would look like this.) The instructions tell me to draw in any scars or moles that I have on my own breasts.
I have a mole. I know it. I have no idea where it is. I am stumped.
Crap. I mean, I can’t look or reach under my shirt. I’m in a hallway. Granted, it’s the mammography hallway, but I don’t think it’s the “mammography/self-examination-because-you-don’t-know-your-own-body” hallway. I make note to come back to that one.
The technician (the same one who already thinks I’m an idiot) invites me into the mammography room and then to take off my sweater and bra. She hands me a box of baby wipes and says, “Use these to remove all powder, deodorant, whatever.”
I don’t like taking off my top in front of people. I haven’t undressed in front of any member of my family since elementary school. I never used communal showers at camp. I never went to camp. Maybe I should have. Maybe it would have helped me to not be nervous standing half naked in front of this technician.
I am concerned that she is evaluating my breasts. Is she looking at them thinking, “Oh, not bad.” Or, “Good heavens, only 30 and sagging already?” If breasts are your business, how can you not evaluate them? I teach speech, and I can’t listen to a Sunday sermon without grading it.
I remove my above-waist clothing and start wiping down with the baby wipes. I say, “Hey, I do have a mole, but I wasn’t sure where. Can I draw it in now?”
She was immediately at my side. “Where do you have a mole?”
“Right breast, about an inch under the nipple.”
She pulls a small doughnut-shaped sticker off her clipboard and puts it on my breast. I look in the mirror. The mole-area now resembles a small bulls-eye.
Is having a mole bad?
I am looking in the mirror. Wait, there’s a mirror. One of those big store mirrors, like in a dressing room. I wonder if it’s two-way.
“Please, step up to the machine,” the technician says.
I step over to the mammogram machine. I cannot see how this thing works. How does it take pictures of my breasts? The technician sees me looking bewildered and says, “Step right here.”
Dutiful patient, I step right there.
“Grab the bar on the side with your right hand,” she says. “This might be a little bit cold.”
It was freezing.
The technician grabs my right breast. Seriously. She didn’t even buy me dinner first.
She sticks out her hand and grabs my right breast, saying “I’m just going to put it right here,” like it’s a toy she is putting away for safekeeping. “Right here” is the icy-cold metal plate that is about 4 inches higher than my breast.
“Now don’t stand on tip-toes, no matter how much you feel like you need to,” she says.
Oh, no, ma’m. You are clearly in control.
She pushes a button and a plastic thing starts coming down on top of my breast. Ah, the “squishing” part I have heard so much about. Well, I can take it. I am a tough girl. I don’t…
“OW! Ow, ow, OW!”
Technician grins. “Yeah, it’s a little uncomfortable.”
Uncomfortable my foot! My breast is like a zit you’re trying to pop!
I flash back to the moment my doctor mentioned having a mammogram earlier—“You’re 30. Your mom had breast cancer. Wanna get a mammogram?” he had asked in a devil-may-care kind of way, like asking if I wanted to go get a turkey leg at the state fair. “Oh, let’s schedule one!”
“Let’s.” As in “Let us.”
Sorry, dear doctor, unless you are channeling the spirit of my right breast this second, there isn’t any “us” going on here.
Technician says, “Now the left one.”
Grab the bar; let my new best friend plop me on the ice tray; squeeze; grimace; hold my breath; don’t stand on tip-toes. Done.
“Now, we have to do the side views.”
The machine roared to life and began moving in a way that seemed horrifyingly familiar. Ever seen “Aliens”? Remember that robot-loader that Ripley operates in the final battle with the alien queen? The one with the vice-like hands that would spin around and grab things?
The mammogram machine was beginning to rotate in much the same way.
The technician says, “Grab the bar again, rest your elbow on the top of the plate, lean into the machine, and look up.”
The joy of squishing has now been supplemented with the sensation of a cold, hard corner of metal jammed into my armpit. The plate comes down on top of my breast. The technician says, “There will be some tugging on your skin.”
Breathe through the discomfort.
“Hold your breath!”
(You know, it’s not gravity and time that make women’s breasts sag. It’s getting this done over and over.)
Same thing, different side.
“All done!” she announces cheerfully. “Go ahead and get dressed and wait outside.”
I do that, feeling like I deserve a medal or something—at least some candy. But I settle into the soft chair next to the developing room and wait.
A few minutes later the technician calls out, “Hey, you want to see what your mammogram looks like?”
I duck into the dark room and see x-rays on a light board. I furrow my brow and try to look intelligently at these images. I have no idea what I’m looking at.
“See that spot right there? That’s your mole.”
Spot? I don’t see a spot. Yet I nod my head seriously.
“You are young and so your tissue is dense. I don’t see anything that jumps out at me, but we will send this to the radiologists and let them take a look. You should hear something in a couple of weeks.”
I say thank you and start to leave, wondering where the closest place to buy some deodorant is. I begin thinking how I won’t have to do this again for at least another two years, but then the technician calls out, “Since this is your first mammogram, don’t be surprised if they call you back for more tests. First-time patients have to get more pictures taken about 50 percent of the time, just because they don’t have anything old to compare these results against.”
Oh. Good. Maybe I’ll get dinner the next time.