By Summer Lopez
About six weeks ago I was applying deodorant when I discovered a lump in my left breast. That’s the kind of thing that hits you right in the gut. At least, it did mine.
After testing revealed the lump as a benign cyst I realized there is a narrative about mammograms which I — and no doubt others — subscribe to. And the peculiar thing is, I didn’t even know it.
First things first.
Currently we live in a world in which high-profile, American women elect to reduce their odds of breast and other cancers that afflict women by surgical means. This strikes me as a privileged act that draws much social attention to cancer prevention and away from the women who cannot afford it. But: their money, their breasts.
Other tropes are trotted out as well, including: early detection determines remission, regular self-exams are an okay substitute for medical intervention, and the topic that bring me to this story —
Setting aside the waiting period for mammograms and ultrasounds — also a hallmark of access to health care — and the final (?) verdict from a specialist, I’ve somehow bought into an idea that mammograms are for so-called at-risk, older women, but me? No way.
And that’s a good thing, because don’t mammograms suck?
I mean, don’t they hurt?
Don’t they mean I’m over the hill?
What’s next, menopause?
My first mammogram meant some and none of these things. Fortunately, my mammogram tech was way awesome. In fact, everyone in Kaiser’s Breast Center soothed any and every concern with an almost spa-inspired atmosphere.
I’m guessing that’s a new thing, a product of increased sensitivity toward patients at any stage of treatment for their breasts. Even melodic tones echoed through the waiting area, where I waited with other women in pink wrap-around gowns.
I wanted to ask for a post-mammogram pedi.
I studied my fellow patients.
That one is totally older than me.
That one is big-breasted.
That one looks like a wine-bottle-a-night kinda chick.
None of them are me.
Yet, there I was grimacing in anticipation at the dreaded, painful procedure to follow.
Here’s some pro-mammogram propaganda:
Here’s what generally happens during a mammogram.
- You get prepped on what’s going to happen when and why.
- You get a heads-up on level(s) of discomfort.
- You get context for how the test will inform — or won’t — additional medical intervention.
- You get specific instruction on how to pose, how to breathe, how long and why.
Then it begins. There’s the holding of my breath. There’s the arranging of my body. There’s the positioning of my breast.
And, there’s the squeeze I was warned about. I blinked and it was over.
The tech who so throughly set my expectations told me, at 41, that I should be having annual mammograms. Because I’m older. Because I’m at risk. Duh. Because breast cancer needs to matter for someone like me. She also advised to make such appointments myself, because although nobody told me — and probably other women — that insurance must cover one “wellness” mammogram per year but never volunteer that information freely.
I legit asked the tech why women think mammograms suck. The tech responded with a sigh.
By the age of 40, she said, women have been taught to fear the depth of pain associated with the test.
She also said by 40, most women have been pregnant whether they terminated, miscarried, or delivered. Nothing — especially not a mammogram — compares to the pain of other reproductive experiences.
Let me get this straight. There is a mammogram myth I believe? Really now, are we fearing and ignoring a medical procedure that could be the difference between Life and Death?
Is this just another way to advance the plot of the story women tell ourselves is too scary to face? Yes.
My mammogram — as I said — was not painful. It was necessary. It was informative. It did not suck.
I’ll be going back next year.
Summer Lopez is a writer living in California. Politics, entertainment, and memoir are equal parts her subject matter. She also publishes We Are 40, a zine for Generation X, and Lost in a Book, a kid lit review.