I have had annual mammograms for about the last 10 years. I started them early because of my mother’s history of breast cancer, and the way it snuck up on all of us when she was in her early 40’s. I will tell the story of that journey another time. Suffice it to say that when my doctor suggested that I start having this procedure, I took it seriously.
In Moncton we have the Katherine Wright Wellness Center where asymptomatic women between the ages of 50-74 can call to book an appointment. If you are outside of this age range, you need a referral from your doctor. That’s how I got started when I was in my early 40’s. The clinic itself is not unlike many other waiting rooms that you would go to in any hospital or doctor’s office. With some significant differences.
There may be one or two men, sitting next to a chair that holds a coat and a purse, but mostly it’s a room full of women. You might expect that this would mean you would hear a lot of chatting or see a lot of interaction, but you don’t. You hear the tv that no one is watching, and you try not to hear the details of the person who is checking in at the desk. You see women flipping through magazines that are years old, or more commonly now, they are staring at their phones. Anything to avoid making eye contact with anyone else because we are all there for the same reason. Even though we are “asymptomatic” we are all there to be screened for CANCER.
A technician calls out two names, and you follow her to the locker room where she gives you the spiel about taking off all your clothes from the waist up, removing any deodorant or powder and the “Johnny shirt” that fits no one, fastens in the front. Then you sit and wait again, still not talking. Sometimes a woman who is on her way back to the locker room will smile genuinely at you, and say “good luck” but that is because she is done, and on her way out.
The first mammogram I had after my mom passed was tough. I knew it would be. It was 3 months after she died, and my emotions were still close to the surface. I cried when I was in the exam room and the tech was going through the survey. I know she asks those questions countless times during the day and the week, but for me, each one was a reminder of why I was here, and why I had started so young. She was very understanding though, and allowed me to take the time to process, and gather myself for the task ahead. What has surprised me is that I have cried every year since then. Usually when I am in the waiting area after changing, looking at the door of the room that holds that big machine. It has been 8 years of mom’s birthday and the date of her passing, but nothing makes me more conscious of her absence in my life than being in that moment. So, I sit, and let the tears come, and try not to freak out the other woman seated at my side.
The procedure itself is as uncomfortable as it sounds when you talk about having a stranger handle your breast so that is positioned correctly between two plates and compressed so that the digital imaging machine can take a good picture. They will tell you to hold your breath, but there’s no need, because you can’t really take a breath anyway. You try to relax, while your body is twisted and pressed up to the machine while the tech stands behind the protective glass. You hear a whirring sound as you look off into a corner of the room, and then the plates release and you breathe again, for just a minute as you are set up for the next scan. Two scans of each breast, from the top and the side. You are told that you will be contacted if something shows up, otherwise you will get a letter with next year’s appointment date. and you are the woman who smiles at those who are waiting.
There are probably many on both sides of the fence when it comes to whether to have a mammogram, and I am not here to debate the issue. It is a decision to make after discussion with your doctor and family and is deeply personal. In my case, I am glad that I have made this a part of my health regimen. There has only been one year when I was called back for more tests, and they were all clear. Other than that, about a week after the scan, I get a letter, I enter the information in my calendar, and I forget about it for another year. What I don’t forget is the reason why I go for the testing and the woman that I miss every day.