My adventures in mammograms
I had a mammogram today. I didn’t feel anxious about it all, to be honest. Which is actually a bit odd, because I have always figured breast cancer is probably the way I will end up going down. My mother died at thirty seven of the disease.
There’s always been a subversive undercurrent of “your-mom-got-it-you’re-probably-going-to-get-it” in my life since then. Whether it was relatives warning me that my chances of getting sick were high, or western medicine picking and choosing what one should panic about, it’s just always been there.
I had my first mammogram twelve years ago. I don’t remember worrying about that one either, that is until they called me to tell me they found a pea-sized mass that was going to have to be removed. I laid flat on my back, with a small white towel over my right breast, while my left one was shot through with syringes of Novocain. A big hollow needle micro-osterized the mass, blending up the tissue while simultaneously suctioning it into a hollow tube to be sent to a lab. While I waited for the results, I watched my boob turn many different colors. Day one was a deep purple that gave way to something more lavender by the end of day two. At day four we were into the dull greenish-yellows as my body reabsorbed the blood left behind by the invasion.
The results came back benign. I still have a small metal piece in my breast. It’s called a target. Surgeons like those so they can hit the spot when they open you up. No one opened me up and no one seemed to care that this little piece of shrapnel was going to be left inside me.
“Do you have children?” The tech’s voice brought me back.
“No,” I said.
“That’s okay,” she told me in a volume that trailed off.
Her response seemed so automatic, instinctive almost, like she was used to women like me being in this room, completely distraught that they weren’t already mothers.
“I’m blissfully barren,” I offered, laughing a little to ease the awkwardness.
She laughed too.
I was being honest. I had never wanted to be a mother.
And then a sudden wave of emotion washed through me. My throat started to throb, and my heart sank for my own mother. She had actually wanted children. She had hoped to raise her two kids. She wanted to live to see us grow. She got none of that.
And somehow, even though I know we aren’t the same person, I often feel like a replacement who is not doing a very good job. A flopsweat imposter. I’ve outlived her; what do I have to really show for it? I feel like there is something more I should have in place by now to prove I deserve the extra time that was taken from her.
I pretended to have something in my eye to try and mask the welling that had come up. I got through a few more questions and then it was time to take the images.
She didn’t ask me to whip out a boob, as I expected, she asked me to take out my left arm. Guess what that does in one of those flappy hospital gowns? That’s right, your boob pops out while you are trying to free up your arm. I love Western sensibilities. We hyper-sexualize almost everything, yet we are so awkward and fearful about real human sexuality. God forbid we just ask a woman to expose her breast during a breast exam. No, no – be decent! Request she remove her arm. So I got my boob arm out and we were off.
Most of my mammography took place to the score for Jurassic Park. It was playing on a small boombox off in the corner. It was the really powerful piece of music that played when they first rose over that grassy hill and saw dinosaurs everywhere, eating and enjoying their prehistoric lives. It worked well for me. Made me feel strong and maybe like I could outsmart my catastrophic history as well.
I got my right arm out next and you know what followed. The second round of images involved much more compression and I tried to break up my discomfort with humor.
“This gives a whole new meaning to fifty shades of gray.”
Crickets. Blank look.
“That was an x ray joke. You know, the grayscale of imaging?”
Polite laughter followed as she let me off the hook with, “Ohhh, right. I guess so.”
Apparently my breasts photograph well. One round of images, and I was free to go.
As I wrapped the gown back around myself for the trip across the hallway to the little dressing room where my clothes waited, the technician leaned forward with a concentrated focus on the screens in front of her. I could see my shrapnel in one image, casting solid and black at the top of my breast.
“That target, you’ll have that forever,” she said, glancing at me.
“I know,” I quietly returned as I walked out the door, wishing her a good day.