As I sat in the waiting room listening for my name, another patient emerged from the imaging area with a frenzied look, gripping her right breast.
“Aw it isn’t that bad,” I said to her.
I thought she was a wuss to grimace at a little pressure. But who was I to tell another woman she didn’t hurt? I spoke from the perspective of someone who didn’t need pain medication to recover from a surgery. And I experienced a painless first mammogram.
It was six months prior. I was referred to a breast specialist because I was prone to benign cysts and I had a family history of breast cancer. My mother, who was the first in the family to be diagnosed with the disease, succumbed to metastasized breast cancer at the young age of 46. My recommendation was to be screened at 35.
A second appointment within the same year was merely a precaution. We were monitoring a cyst that was too deep to aspirate without any discomfort. I had no reason to believe this visit would be any different from the last one despite that woman’s reaction.
“That was the worst,” she replied as she left.
I glanced around the waiting room thinking it was a good thing no mammogram virgins were present because she would’ve surely scared them all. Even I had heard horror stories from the 50-year-olds and up ranging from the nurse twists your breasts into weird angles to she slams the plates down on your breasts. But I dismissed those tales as nothing but ridiculous exaggerations. Mere myths.
I was still eager when the nurse called my name. “That’s me!” I said. I was calm from the dressing room to the examination room until I posed in front of the mammography machine. That’s when I realized this nurse was one of those technicians. One everyone tried to warn me about. One who manipulated and juggled breasts like they were indestructible objects. One who confused the mammography machine with an industrial panini press.
Ditto to what the other patient said. That ish hurt.
I wasn’t quite sure if she wanted to flip my left breast upside down and then level it or not. But she needed to know what she tried to accomplish was an impossibility. And she needed to quit tightening those plates before something burst and I’m not talking about implants, either.
“It doesn’t flatten,” I informed her. Some breasts are rather dense.
“I have to tighten it so we can see everything,” she replied. That translated to everything that probably wouldn’t even be detected for another fifteen years under a “normal” mammogram. The radiologist later pointed out a few white specks on the film, or calcifications, but explained they didn’t warrant concern.
Nurse Ratched slowly walked back to the computer where she controlled and captured the images.
“Raise your chin.”
Raise my chin? It wasn’t until that moment that I realized my body had morphed into the yogic cat pose – chin-to-chest, hunched back – only I was standing.
“I can’t!” I fired back. Any movement, including breathing, only worsened the pain.
We repeated the entire process in multiple positions, not because I didn’t cooperate but because abnormalities such as cysts required it. So she said. No one advised me of this tidbit in advance.
I left the hospital in as bad of a mood as I assumed the nurse was in. Follow up in six months my ass. My poor breast throbbed for three days.
But then there are those statistics: About 1 out of 8 of us will develop breast cancer in our lifetime; Seventeen percent won’t survive. And those of us who fall in the high-risk category definitely aren’t in the position to forgo regular screenings, not to mention breast cancer is more prevalent in black women than white women within my age group.
So what will I be doing from now until forever? Performing those self-exams and shuddering in the waiting room every six to 12 months. But it would be so lovely if mammograms didn’t involve crushing sensitive breast tissue.
Reprinted with permission from Clutch.