Over the years I’ve impressed some doctors with comprehensive knowledge of my family’s medical history. However, whenever I’ve uttered that my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer at 39 years old, I get “the look.” The “wow-that-was-young” look.
My grandmother thankfully survived her cancer ordeal. But in the early 1960s, folks did not openly discuss illnesses. The stigma surrounding her bout with breast cancer remained for the rest of her life. My mother was 5 years old when my grandmother was diagnosed, but even as years passed, my grandmother’s breast cancer experience remained shrouded in mystery. As a result, we don’t have the best understanding of her disease and treatment. And, unfortunately, we cannot gather further knowledge as she passed away nearly 29 years ago (for reasons unrelated to breast cancer).
At my annual gynecological exam this year, my doctor indicated it might be time to have my first baseline mammogram given my family history. My breast exam was normal and I could wait another year. But at 36 years old, I’m now staring at the not-so-distant diagnosis age of my grandmother. Furthermore, my aunt and my mother’s cousin have also battled breast cancer recently. Given these factors, I welcomed the opportunity to be proactive.
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and in an effort to lessen the stigma and fear surrounding mammograms, here is my experience of my first “big squish.”
Step 1: Make Appointment
This is a pretty obvious step, but I may or may not have taken an entire month after visiting my gynecologist to do this. Luckily, I secured an appointment within a month.
Step 2: Arrival and Check In
When I arrive, I sign a few forms, confirm information – usual doctor’s office fare. I show them the order from my doctor’s office: “Diagnostic Screening for Family History of Malignant Neoplasm of the Breast.” That’s a mouthful.
Step 3: Disrobe
I’m given a hospital gown and asked to undress from the waist up. The nurse asks if I have deodorant on. Oops! I totally do. In fact, I put on a little extra today because I was afraid to get the nervous sweats. Clearly, I’m not the only person who’s made this mistake. She hands me a “mammary cleansing towel” with a smile. Hmph. I bet someone made a lot of money with that patent.
Step 4: Wait again
The nurse gave me a clear bag for my clothes. Now in another waiting area with three other women, I have a brief moment of worry because my bra is just hanging out in a clear bag. I start making an attempt to rearrange my clothes in the bag. I’m suddenly also self-conscious about being bra-less. But then I realize that all the women in the room are in the same boat. Solidarity sisters!
Step 5: Information session
About five minutes later, the technician calls me in. The room is surprisingly bigger, and the machine itself is smaller than I envisioned. I hand her the order from my doctor and apologize that it’s a bit crushed. After all, it’s been residing in my purse for the past two months.
She explains how she will take a few images of each breast, frontal and side views and warns me not to panic if I’m asked to return to retake some images. It’s apparently a common occurrence for women who have breasts of my size. No need to beat around the bush I guess.
Step 6: Mammogram time
The technician apologizes for handling and re-handling my breasts to get them in the proper spot. I am amazed she isn’t completely desensitized to handling breasts all day long. Maybe she’s being especially nice because it’s my first time. Or maybe I’m starting to sweat from nerves, now that I was just acquainted with a “mammary cleansing towel.”
Step 7: I never knew they could flatten so much.
Color me impressed. Each image entails mere seconds of discomfort. I stare at the clock on the wall and it actually seems to make the time needed for each image pass more quickly.
Bottom line: If you can handle your annual pap smear, a visit to the dentist, or childbirth, you can totally handle this.
Step 8: Done!
We wrap up in about 10 minutes. I ask where I can dress and she casually replies ,”oh, right here.”
I just spent 10 minutes with this woman handling my breasts left, right, and sideways. Why I thought I needed a private space to dress is a mystery to me. It’s kind of like when you visit the gynecologist and feel the innate need to hide your underwear.
I may have taken a lighter approach to sharing my experience with my first “big squish.” I recognize for many this is a nerve-wracking experience, especially if you have had an abnormal breast exam.
Lucky for us, it’s 2017 and not 1962. We can talk openly about medical experiences like these. That information is so important to share. If by reading this, I have encouraged just one woman to start a dialogue with her physician or to finally make that appointment, then I’ve accomplished my goal.
When taking care of your children is a full-time job in itself, it’s so easy to put aside your own health. But taking care of yourself is priceless. Be proactive. You will thank yourself for it, and so will your children.