I'm a public health professional and have spent most of my career working in women’s health, so you'd think that getting a routine cancer screening would be no big deal. After all, I literally used to teach thousands of women about the importance of getting annual breast cancer screenings. I thought I'd turn 40, make the necessary appointments, get it over with, and then incorporate cancer screenings into my annual health care routine. Instead, I put off scheduling my first mammogram.
To be fair, it's not that I was deliberately putting it off — at least, not entirely. My oversight was partly due to my life being busy AF. It's not uncommon for my health to take a back seat to my kids, my job, and my already full-plate of responsibilities. And as a working mom, who already lives with a chronic health condition, I have way too many medical appointments as it is. Getting a mammogram wasn't on my mind, partly because my mind was already filled with a slew of other appointments... and partly because, deep down, I just didn't want it to be.
Because, if I'm being honest, I have to admit that I was more than a little bit scared. I was scared of the pain, and, of course, scared of the possibility that I might have breast cancer. So scared, in fact, that I figured not knowing was better than knowing anything at all. It’s a bit strange, when you think about it... and especially when you consider the broader scope of my health care. Like many other people with uteruses, I’ve had a Pap smear on an annual basis since I was 15, complete with a pelvic exam and a clinical breast exam. Any one of those exams could have found signs of cancer if a cancer was present. So, in the end, why did this specific cancer screening feel so different?
I think part of the problem is that I am the type of person whose brain goes to the worst case scenario. And as a skin cancer survivor, I’ve been through numerous cancer screenings, biopsies, and surgeries. Simply put, I put off getting a mammogram because if there was something wrong I truly didn't want to know. I had endured enough "bad health news" for one lifetime. I guess, when push came to shove, I just didn't want to even facilitate the possibility of enduring one more piece of bad news.
But here's the truth: 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society, so it’s important to get screened and catch cancer early, when it’s most treatable.
They told me to not wear deodorant, perfume, or lotion, which seemed like a cruel joke, considering how much I sweat when I'm nervous.
Breast cancer awareness has come along way since the 80s. Pink ribbons, breast cancer races, celebrities like Christina Applegate talking about their own battles, and PSAs during Monday Night football have destigmatized talking about breast cancer; a necessary progression that I, for one, am extremely grateful for.
Still, the idea of losing my breasts is horrific. And because I've already survived skin cancer, the possibility of enduring another type of cancer — the kind that could potentially take away a part of my body that our society has attributed to femininity and womanhood — felt like something I couldn't talk about. Not with my husband. Not with my doctor. In some ways, not even with myself.
So when my 40th birthday came and went, I purposefully neglected bringing up mammograms with my doctor. Then, as all of my friends and my sister posted on social media about theirs, I felt the strain of what can only be described as peer pressure. So, I put on my grown-ass woman pants and called to schedule an appointment.
Like many people, I have a tendency to joke about things that make me nervous or worried, especially when my nerves get the better of me. Getting a mammogram was no exception. I joked with my friends that I would be really pissed off if my defective boobs had cancer. My breasts are small, lopsided — one of them is a half-size smaller than the other — and neither of them could produce enough breast milk to exclusively breastfeed my babies. So cancer? Yeah, in a morbid type of way it just made sense.
I had no idea that there would be a stranger touching me in such an intimate way.
I joked with my husband that if I ended up having cancer, I wanted to replace my cancerous breasts with the best boobs money could buy. I even joked with the radiology technician about not having enough to "stuff in the machine" for pictures. She laughed and said it would be no problem, which, thankfully, immediately put me at ease.
I was so nervous the day of my appointment — about the screening, the potential pain, and the idea that they might find something. They told me to not wear deodorant, perfume, or lotion, which seemed like a cruel joke, considering how much I sweat when I'm nervous. I smelled pretty bad walking in to the tiny room where my mammogram would take place, which was simply another situation I could shamelessly joke about.
Alone in a room with a radiology technician and and giant machine, I babbled about random things, asked about 100 awkward questions, and answered 100 more about my medical history and cancer risk. It felt like an oral exam in college... except I was topless. The technician eventually placed stickers to mark the various moles on my boobs, so they could be identified in the images and not mistaken for anomalies.
Then came the mammogram itself, which, for me, was not painful at all. The technician had me stand next to a monstrously huge machine, turned a bunch of dials to raise and lower a chest-height platform, and smooshed my breast onto it and while telling me to shift or straighten various parts of my anatomy.
I'm hoping I will be a little less anxious, since I know what to expect, but I also know that I will walk into that room feeling more confident than I did a year prior. Because I'm doing what's best for me, my health, my body, and my future.
She then "manually" tightened the plates, which felt exactly how it sounds — turning a vice to flatten each breast between a set of two plates. She had me take a breath in, went around the corner to take a digital image, and waited to make sure it looked good as I exhaled. She released the pressure, reset the machine, and repeated the process twice on each breast — vertical and horizontal.
And that was that. The entire process took just a few minutes.
Still, those few minutes felt very intimate and intrusive. I had witnessed this screening numerous times in my professional life, and knew generally what was going to happen during my own. But it was so different to be on the receiving end of this particular screening. I had no idea that there would be a stranger touching me in such an intimate way. As someone who has given birth three times (naked from the waist down), has had dozens of Pap smears and pelvic exams, and is not shy at all about nudity, I was shocked at how personal and invasive the entire process felt.
But it was also pretty damn cool. When it was over the technician showed me her shots like a proud photographer at a photoshoot, pointing out the internal anatomy of my breasts,and giving me a new-found appreciation for them. Sure, I guess I still wish they were perkier and less lopsided, but taking a look inside of them allowed me to see my breasts in a new light.
In the end, my mammogram was completely normal. In the end, I had nothing to worry about. And I won't have anything to worry about until next year, when I go back for my next annual screening. I'm hoping I will be a little less anxious, since I know what to expect, but I also know that I will walk into that room feeling more confident than I did a year prior. Because I'm doing what's best for me, my health, my body, and my future.