A week ago, I decide to cut the childish crap and do some real life “adulting.”
Nothing as simple as paying the bills or even as droll as filing taxes. I went bigger. I got a mammogram.
Everyone knows that once you reach a certain age (ahem), we women are supposed to get an annual mammogram. And, so, being the adult I’ve been led to believe I am, I did.
Well, “annual” in theory (and in air quotes), because that’s what the experts advise, but not “annual” as it applies to me—because I, living cheerfully in very deep-seated denial, haven’t had a mammogram in years. I have absolutely no excuse whatsoever, except that I don’t want to go.
It’s awkward and weird. It’s uncomfortable. Parking could be difficult. I could get lost. I will have to talk to strangers who then want to manhandle (womanhandle?) my ta-tas.
I already told you I had no excuse.
I’m a nurse and a grown woman, and I do know better, but there it is.
So finally, I pushed through my ridiculous phobia, scheduled an appointment for said scan, got my OBGYN (who I also just saw for the first time in I’m not admitting to you how long) to fax the order for it, and the day before Halloween, one day before October and Breast Cancer Awareness Month comes to an end, I got it done.
No better time than the eleventh hour is the way I look at it.
The Breast Care Center was in an easily accessible medical building right by the hospital, and I found it without difficulty by following the cute pink signs in the parking lot. Could not have gotten lost if I’d tried.
I checked in, did my insurance stuff, got a hospital bracelet put on me, and found a seat.
After a few minutes, I’m called back to change, removing everything from the waist up, as I am instructed; then, I went to sit in a “lounge” where other women my age and older are restlessly waiting for their moment of awkwardness. Looking at them all, it is crystal clear that I’m not the only one who doesn’t like being here.
We “lounge” together in silence with bad magazines, pamphlets about breast care, and 80s music playing through the ceiling. Even though I love 80s music, I’m almost offended that they’re playing it. Clearly they know that women old enough to be getting mammograms grew up in the 80s. They’re trying to make us feel more at ease in here. Ironically, it just serves to make me feel old, which I was already feeling today because, may I remind you, I’m having a mammogram.
Finally, I get called back and walk with a very nice woman into the radiology room.
After confirming my information on my hospital bracelet, this is how it went:
“Okay, ma’am, I just need you to step forward toward the machine and take your right arm out of the gown. Yeah, just let that side hang off. Now step closer. More…a bit more…wait, too much, back up. Okay, stop. Hold it right there. Make your feet point toward the machine but turn toward the left. No, don’t move your feet. You moved your feet. Turn your feet back toward the machine. Okay, so turn toward the left with your shoulders not your feet and lean into the machine. Take your right breast in your hand and lay it up here on the glass, no, not like that. Never mind, I got it…”
And, she unlovingly picks up my poor boob and slaps it up there like it was a cut of meat.
“Now lean forward and take your right arm and hug this part of the machine. Grab this handle with your right hand. Lean forward more…more…arm farther away from your body, wait…relax. You gotta breathe and relax. Lean forward more, there. Stop. Don’t move. Now, with your left hand, pull your left breast out of the way, toward your armpit, lean in a bit more, but relax your abdomen. Okay, now hold your breath…and…got it, now the other side!”
“Not bad, that was fairly quick.”
“Oh, no, that was the first of eight pictures. Now, drop your gown. Yeah, just let it fall, step toward the machine, more…more…a bit more…no, too much. Step back a tiny bit. Just scooch your feet back a millimeter…and another…now stop.”
And, on this goes until I have leaned, scooched, grabbed, and been grabbed, twisted, adjusted, relaxed, and nearly fallen over countless times.
I have been squeezed. My side boob folded. Each breast has been squished into a tiny little package, like a sleeping bag that will never go back into its original package. Condensed and tucked into a quarter of the space it normally likes to take up, like those under-the-bed vacuum bags for comforters and sweaters.
Where did it all go??
It’s a humiliating, dehumanizing procedure, no matter how nice the people are or how well they treat you. And, the people there were lovely. They just can’t take away all the awkwardness.
It just is what it is. Taking your girls and folding them up into things they’ve never been before. They’ve been sensual and sexual parts of our bodies. They have fed and sustained our babies. They give us a physically feminine shape, and they partly contribute to our identity as females.
And, I know if they could speak for themselves, they would beg me to stop it because they are so embarrassed.
Finally, we’re done, and I go to the dressing room to change. I pull my bra and shirt back on, trying to bounce and fluff my girls back to normal, apologizing quietly to both of them, although I think they’re mad and ignoring me.
And, with self-conscious awkwardness, I slink right out of there, straight to the parking lot, my free hot pink Breast Care Center lunch kit not making me feel one bit better.
I don’t want to drive yet, so I sit in my car and check email and texts and Facebook, and a new message pops up from my cousin.
My cousin, who is younger than me and now, after finishing intense chemotherapy, then surgery, and beginning radiation, is posting that her hair is growing back. Eyebrows and eyelashes, too. The report is that they think they got the entire tumor. She is weak and fatigued, having painful neuropathy of her feet and burning in her chest. She’s doing better after several trips to the Emergency Room for radiation-related chest pain and to rule out a cardiac event.
She posted pictures of herself attending this year’s Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Walk for the Cure—and although she was too weak to walk, she went to support and connect with other survivors, happy for the feeling of community and comradery.
Also happy to pick up some free “survivor swag.”
She wrote that she had gone through the exact process I just described, only one year before and almost to the day. She walked in the walk just a month before her diagnosis. Before breast cancer took up residency in her body and life, and grew to become a loud and rude roommate that she had no power to evict.
Only one month later, breast cancer would come to have massive significance in her life.
And, in that moment, in my car, seeing her post, feeling her struggle and imagining the fear of my aunt and uncle and cousins, I feel so stupid. I thought a mammogram was embarrassing and humiliating? The only embarrassment left in me is for being such a childish and irresponsible brat and not getting my annual scans. The humiliation I’m feeling now is only in imagining a scenario where I might have had to look my family in the eye and tell them I’m dying, and that it could have been caught and treated if I simply had gotten checked.
That I knew I had the power to find out, but I chose not to.
October may be over, but awareness of breast cancer and breast care is not an annual thing. If you are a woman, it’s a daily, all year long, every year of our lives concern that we need to be thinking about now before we plan Christmas or Hannukah or New Year’s or whatever other excuses we use to procrastinate.
Don’t wait for Monday or after the holidays.
Your family will thank you. Just as we gratefully and silently thank my cousin every day for getting herself checked and saving her own life in the process.
And, men? Go get your cancer-prone parts checked, too. Embarrassing? A bit. Not as embarrassing as dying from something that could’ve been detected and treated.
Author: Amy Bradley
Image: Flickr/F. // Chicca // K. Silva
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Social Editor: Callie Rushton