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Your First Mammogram

Why I was afraid to go and why you shouldn’t be.

“No deodorant or lotion on the day of your appointment.” said the receptionist from the doctor’s office. “Oh good.” I thought to myself. A potentially humiliating experience that I will likely sweat and smell though. That is sure to lower my overwhelming feelings of anxiety for my first mammogram.

I have been dreading getting a mammogram ever since I first heard what one was. The day cashiers and clerks stopped referring to me as “miss” and started calling me “Ma’m” I, like a dime-store psychic knew my time was running out. A professional boob flattening and review was in my destiny. I was super happy when that study by a government task force came out that pushed back the recommended age of getting a mammogram from about age 40 to 50.* I convinced myself that I had some quality time to bank on. I kept telling my doctors, “Oh there is a study… we can wait, right?” But as fate would have it, at two weeks before my 44th birthday my doctor decided it was time. She said one breast felt harder than the other. I said it was because that boob had seen a lot and had briefly considered joining a gang. My doctor was not amused. I had dodged the pancake machine long enough. It was time.

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As an adult person with female reproductive parts, I have spent plenty of my time in what could be considered invasive and potentially embarrassing doctor appointments. I’ve had so many doctors look up me over the years, I sometimes felt like a telescope. I have been poked, prodded, pried open and scraped. Repeatedly. I’ve had my breasts examined on examination tables, behind bleachers and in the back seat of a restored 1950’s era Ford or two. These boobs and the rest of me, have gotten around.

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The comments I often got about my sexy milk-machines when I trotted them out in my 20’s and 30’s were that they were “perky and nice.” And how happy I will be when I get older because they probably won’t sag. “Oh, I can tell you’ve never had kids.” and, “You have really great nipples.” I have never ever had anyone say, “Those are the best tits I’ve ever seen.” In other words, my boobs are considered small. A fact that growing up in a sparkly, sexualized and superficial city made abundantly clear to me. I was a young woman with small breasts living in Hollywood just slightly before the glory days when back-ends became all the rage. My sweet, sweet ass would not save me from the pity smile from the gals at Victoria’s Secret. They were better than me, and they were probably out of my size. I did extra work on movies when I was young to help pay the rent. And often there would be a call on the Central Casting hotline looking to book, “boobs on a stick.” That was literally the look they wanted. Super skinny, no ass, big boobs. That was what sold. I suffered through some rejection and lost some good paying tinsel town work and free craft service lunches for not being properly stacked. I lost boyfriends to the call of the bigger boob too.

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Eventually, I made peace with that particular chestal area of my body. What really happened was I became a goddam adult who realized that I had love in my life and goals and big dreams that had fuck-all to do with a boob size. I starting working out. My butt became fashionable. I also fell in love. I started my own business. At about age 32, I became happy with me and I forgot about boob shaming all together. That is until I hung up the phone with that receptionist. The horror set in. Oh god, how will they get my tiny titties in the mammogram machine? This is going to be embarrassing. OMG. I can’t wear deodorant. I am suddenly 16 again and that cute surfer boy won’t ask me to the dance because my boobs are too small. He told his friend my face was cute but I had no boobs. He never asked.

It’s amazing how humiliation can stick with you for so long. It’s sad that social constructs about bodies can affect you for a lifetime. But they do.

So the mammogram appointment that I had put off (I had hoped forever) was destined to take place in two weeks. I worried and fretted myself into a ball of panic right up to the moment I walked into the doctor’s office. And then still, in the waiting room.

What if they can’t get my boobs in the machine? What if a man does the appointment? What if they laugh? What if it hurts. What if I look nervous? Will they notice?

What if they find a cyst?

What if they find cancer?

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Lucky for me, breast cancer does not run in my family and that was one of the excuses I told myself and proudly boasted to my doctors for why I did not need to go to the mammoslam appointment. False positives are a thing, I’d say. They are stressful, I’d say. I’ll do it next year. But next year had finally come and here I was.

They called my name.

I stood up and walked into what I was sure was to be the worst experience of my life. I was met by a smiling dark haired woman who led me into a room with smaller rooms. This staging area was set up almost exactly like a dressing room at the mall where you go to try on clothes. There were rooms you walked into, with mirrors and a hook to hang your clothes and a fabric door that you pulled closed for privacy. dressing room imageThe only thing that was different from being at the mall was that every woman who came in tried on the exact same dress. A lovely open front blue table-cloth like cover up with strings that tied in the front. I donned my high fashion mammogram attire and prepared for my fate. I exited the dressing area and met my future high-fashion breast imager who led me into a dimly lit room that held within it a large machine that looked quite a bit like a giant white paper press.

I was asked to walk up to the machine and remove the left side of my high fashion blue tablecloth. Then the woman adjusted the machine so the paper-press appearing part was at boob level. She had me lean in and she quickly and professionally adjusted the machine to sorta scoop and hold my left breast. She did a tiny bit of adjusting. Then she closed the paper press, only slightly, to compress that breast.

I’ve heard stories about this being painful, and I was worried. But it did not hurt me at all. I can not speak for all women, but for me this was completely painless. The nurse then walked over to a table with a computer type screen, told me to hold my breath for about three seconds and created an X-ray image. We repeated the steps on the right side.

Next, she asked me to lean in and sorta hug the machine so she could take a side boob image. And that is when I learned why they didn’t want you to wear lotion or deodorant. At least I assume this is the reason. Deodorant or lotion would have gotten all over the machine and made it slippery because (at least in my case) I had to really lean in and hug the boob-press with one arm to get in the correct position. The side-boob-hug-the-machine image was created on both sides.

That was it. I was done. Back to the dressing room to get my own shirt on and I was out the door.

It was very fast.

It didn’t hurt.

No one laughed at me and the tiny-two fit fine in the mammoslam machine.

The nurses were all very professional and kind.

I looked good in the blue gown.

In about a week I got my results:
No cysts, no cancer.

My boobs got an A+ healthy report card for their very first time! This review was arguably the most important judgement of their little boob life. And now, instead of worrying and making excuses, I know that going to get a mammogram is not at all something to be afraid of and I have a baseline image that my heath care professionals can look at to compare future mammograms to.

So if you are like me and can’t find an older friend to ask what it’s like, I am here to tell you that your first mammogram is not nearly as bad as you think it might be, and it might actually save your life. If your doctor says it’s time, don’t make excuses, just go.

PS: Your flesh pillows, like nature’s memory foam, puff right back up after being placed in the machine. Nothing to fear in that respect either. And it’s not even half as disturbing as this clipart image made me think it was going to be:

 

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Also? “Mammo-grahams” are a thing.  Featured image and the associated recipe can be found on the blog, “Apron Strings.”

 

*That study in 2009 about pushing mammogram for cancer detection to age 50 from age 40 has been rejected by many professionals. Early cancer screening can really save your life.

Here is an additional link busting some myths and excuses about mammograms from Web MD.

 

*image of pancakes via (WordRidden / Creative Commons). Featured image from the blog Apron Strings.

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics. She is the fearless leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Follow her on twitter: @SurlyAmy or on Google+. Tip Jar is here.

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5 Comments

  1. Re: the 2009 recommendation change: yes, doctors have differing opinions but the main thing to remember is that the recommendation is for the “average woman,” which doesn’t include women at high risk, which can include all black women. Best case scenario? Find a doctor who knows what’s what and then trust them to help you make the right health decisions.

  2. Thanks for the excellent post, Amy. I’m glad you had a good experience. I know you have included this important fact in the link, but I think it merits repeating (I’m sensitive because over the last couple months I’ve diagnosed a couple of really bad breast cancers on women who avoided mammograms): 85% of women with breast cancer have no family history of breast cancer.

    Lifetime risk of breast cancer for a woman in the United States is 1 in 8. That means that odds are good that we will all know someone with breast cancer or that we could be that one with breast cancer.

    As for the US Preventive Services Task Force recommendation to begin mammograms at 50yo, I’m conflicted. The USPSTF puts weight on the cost in healthcare dollars of screening and testing to diagnose benign disease as compared to treating a late stage cancer. As the number one risk factor for a breast cancer is age, the prevalence (and therefore the cost) of treating breast cancer goes up at age 50 as compared to age 40. But the cost of the life, the price of the years saved, can’t be be determined and so isn’t a part of the equation. I’m conflicted because certainly healthcare dollars are important, but so are the lives of young women. It is so hard for healthcare professionals to step back, with names and faces to go along with the 40-something year olds with breast cancers, and agree that society would be better off losing those lives.

  3. Having larger boobs, my squooshy experience was probably more uncomfortable, but I would not describe it as painful. More like “I’m not enjoying this and hope they get it over with quickly” more than it was “ow.” Kind of like when they take your blood pressure, and pump up the cuff too tightly. It didn’t actually hurt, but I was still glad for it to stop. (And I took deodorant with me to use as soon as I was done!)

  4. Hi, just an editorial clarification, if you had your mammogram done in the USA, most likely none of those employees were “nurses”, they were Registered Radiologic Technologists with special certifications in Mammography. Mammograms are the only FDA regulated imaging test, and the person perform the exam must by law be a register technologist. Usually this means at least a 2 year degree (but 4 years programs are gaining momentum) plus additional clinical and didactic training specifically in Mammography. These professionals (usually women!) must prove competence and document continuing education and pass a challenging certification exam. Please don’t call them “nurses”, it is considered a bit of an insult.

    1. Thinking that “nurse” is an insult is extremely offensive to the nursing profession. They fit most of the criteria you listed: four year degree, additional clinical training in their fields, continuing education and challenging exams. Nursing is a hard job and I believe the devaluing of nurses will lead to a decline in hospital administered health care unless something is done to prevent the brain drain we often see from the profession. Please don’t contribute to that devaluing.

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