For years I’d heard mammograms referred to as “boob mashing,” or “titty twister,” so you can imagine my trepidation when, at age 34, I heard the dreaded words from my nurse practitioner, “You need to start having yearly mammograms.”
Huh uh! No boob mashing for me! Then I remembered that most of the “horror stories” were from women with smaller breasts, while I am, shall we say, well stacked. Still, I put it off for a few more years. At 37, I felt it was time; primarily because my OB/GYN is quite persistent and gave me puppy-dog eyes while reminding me that I really do need to start this yearly womanhood rite of passage. So I made the appointment at a nearby hospital for a Saturday morning and was instructed to not wear any deodorant or powder.
Check-in was discrete and they palm-printed me for future visits (oh, goody). I was led into a waiting area, given a soft, short robe, told to undress above the waist and put the robe on, opening in front. (Don’t people usually wear their robes with the opening in the BACK? Wait, yes they do; in the hospital. And I WAS in a hospital, so…) I locked my purse and clothing in the provided locker and had a cup of peppermint tea to calm my slight nerves. A few minutes later, the technician led me into the x-ray room.
The “boob masher” was this unimposing machine that gave off “Who, me?” vibes, and appeared rather nonthreatening. Then there was the handling. Thank God the technician was a woman! I don’t consider myself extremely modest, but neither do I make a habit of allowing people to casually handle my breasts. That made three of them in recent years: my nurse practitioner who used to perform my breast exams, my OB/GYN who currently does them, and now this strange lady with a wide smile. (Why was she smiling? Surely she’s had this boob mashing done to her a time or four.)
Trying not to be embarrassed, I pushed back one side of the robe, attempting to retain a small measure of modesty for the breast waiting its turn, shuffled close to the machine, and laid the exposed breast on “the rack” so the technician could lower the clear window and take the necessary x-rays.
To my astonishment, she lifted my breast like she handles them all day long (she probably does) and said, “Come all the way up against the machine.”
Well, at least it wasn’t cold. So there I stood, breast flat (well, relatively speaking) on the machine’s ledge, the clear window descending. At that point I realized it wasn’t my boob that was in danger of being mashed. Everything above my breast – which was lying quite painlessly on the ledge – suffered the severe pinch. Ever had someone try to relocate all your chest tissue without first knocking you out? That HURT! Cue the little birdies and stars in my vision.
Then, “Hold your breath.”
Oh yeah, no problem there, lady. I wasn’t breathing anyhow. Seconds later it was over.
“Okay, you can breathe now.”
Well, thank you very much. And we have to do three more like that!? Now the other breast. Same attempt at modesty, handling and mashing and holding my breath.
Then, “Okay, now the side view.”
Well, alright. But instead of turning the machine completely vertical, she turned it to about a 45-degree angle. Now how do we do THIS one? There was no more ledge to rest my breast upon; rather, it appeared as if I would have to support it from underneath. I gave up all attempts at modesty, shucked the robe, rested my left arm gingerly atop the machine, its corner digging into my armpit, and sucked in my tummy to avoid getting it in the x-ray.
“No, dear, we actually want the top of your stomach and your underarm in the picture.”
(Ooooh, so that’s why no deodorant.) I frowned at her. “Why? Do they want to be sure my breasts are in the correct location? I assure you, they are. Must’ve been a man who created this machine. No woman in her right mind wants to mash her own breasts. Men, on the other hand, seem rather fond of mauling our breasts.”
Once she finished laughing, she supported the bottom of my breast and compressed the window, while I tried not to think about how much my armpit hurt hugging the corner of that machine.
Finally done. All four pictures. She let me see them. No wonder they don’t let men be technicians. (Or…maybe they do and I just lucked out?) For one thing, they’d be distracted by all the naked breasts, and for another, disillusionment would probably set in if they realized that all there is inside those round, cushion-y globes are masses of tissue. No colorful landscapes – which I think would be a bad sign – no crossword puzzles, no color by numbers…although, I suppose you probably could create a color-by-numbers activity for all that breast tissue…
A few days later, my OB/GYN called me. There was an asymmetrical spot in my left breast, and she needed to send me for more testing, an ultrasound and spot compression, to verify whether the problem was overlapping tissue, or something serious. Uh oh.That doesn’t sound good. Part of me wasn’t concerned, because there’s no (recorded) history of breast cancer in my blood relatives on either side. On the other hand, I’m of Jewish Ashkenazi heritage on my father’s side, which apparently puts me at greater risk for breast cancer.
I took off work a few days later; wanted to get these tests done and over with as soon as possible. Especially since, if there was a problem with my breast, I wanted to know right away. The woman who set the appointment assured me I would be given the results before leaving the hospital.
Once I found my way to the Outpatient Women’s Center through the warren of a hospital in renovation, my wait was about two hours past my appointment time. Of the three mammography machines, one was broken and the technician (a man, the nurse was quick to tell us) wouldn’t be in until later in the day to fix it. (Cue the eye-rolling.) Another machine was being used for a pre-surgery exam.
So there we were, 18 or so women of varying ages, sizes and ethnicities all in short, pink, front-open gowns that barely covered our tummies, staring at each other, occasionally cutting our eyes to the news on the 32-inch TV mounted so high on the wall that craning your neck to the correct angle to view it properly was literally a pain and hardly worth it. All waiting for our turn at one mammogram machine.
Slowly, we began to talk, forming associations beyond the obvious one that had us gathered in the same room. I met three women from the New Jersey/New York area, all of whom moved to South Florida because of their husbands’ jobs, and all of whom would happily relocate to their former homes. (I may have to visit New York someday; they made it sound so much more friendly and laid back than South Florida.)
Then it was my turn. And the number of women handling my breast rose to four. After my first re-imaging, the nurse had to call me back from the waiting room twice, because the radiologist needed just a couple more images. Spot compression is just that: spot compression. But not only was my generous left breast compressed almost to the size of a pancake (quite impossible, I assure you), the nurse also twisted and held it there while she compressed it.
Hold my breath? No problem, because I’m in too much pain to breathe now anyway. I swear stars and pink elephants clouded my vision (my pain graduated from birdies to elephants). If the nurse hadn’t held me in place, then compressed my already twisted breast, I’m sure I would’ve fallen to the floor writhing in pain. And she did that not once, but THREE times; on the SAME breast. I had the bruises to prove it. They disappeared soon afterward, but the memory is still quite fresh, even 5 years later. It’s right up there with childbirth, before they give you the epidural. (Too bad pharmaceutical companies haven’t seen fit yet to create a drug for women having mammograms or spot compression; they’d make a killing!)
Finally that torture was over and just the ultrasound was left. The technician was kind enough to heat the slimy gel before squirting it all over the left side of my chest. She took about 24 stills of my left mammary tissue mass, and then left the room nice and dark while I cleaned up, dressed and curled into a fetal position, attempting to recover from my ordeal.
After the image scan, I got the results: clean, no problems. Thank God!
And then a reminder to come back and do it all over again next year…joy-gasms.
Wendy is a writer who holds degrees from three different universities, including MA and MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. Her debut novel, SERPENT ON A CROSS, which was published October 30, 2012, by Northampton House Press as an ebook, was re-released digitally and in print – with new content -by Booktrope, in August 2014.
She’s authored numerous poems, and is currently juggling several Shiny Things (AKA, Works in Progress). She has served as a copy editor and panel reader for Hippocampus Magazine, and a reader for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. She works as a Editor and Proofreader for her publisher, Booktrope, and its Gravity Imprint, as well as freelance editing.
In her day job, Wendy is a crime analyst for a county sheriff’s office. Her hobbies include writing, reading, and traveling. She lives in South Florida with her teenage son.
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