I love birthdays. I love the celebrating, the traditions, and the specialness of the entire occasion. Milestone birthdays are like super-bonus birthdays. 5 is a “whole hand,” 10 is double digits. Depending on your culture, certain years even hold special significance, like the bar/bat mitzvah at 13 or the quinceañera at 15. If you’re lucky, you might even remember your “golden birthday.”
Most of us associate particular milestones with the privileges–and therefore responsibilities–they carry:
- 16 is old enough to drive
- 18 is old enough to vote
- 21 is old enough to drink
- 40 is old enough to…get a mammogram
It may not be as flashy or exciting, but it’s arguably more important.
As a rule-follower, I was tempted to schedule my first mammogram for my actual birthday, but my pragmatism won out, and I waited until I was due for my annual exam. There was a bit of nervous anticipation as I imagined what the results might reveal– we all know someone who has been affected by breast cancer in some way— but also because I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.
Sure, I’d heard what the general process entailed: you set your boobs on a shelf and waited until they were squished with something like the professional-grade iron they use at the dry cleaners. (Actually, that’s not too far off.) But I had an additional worry: I don’t have much boob to set on that shelf.
As a member of the IBTC (if you know, you know), I even expressed these concerns at my regular check-up some months before. I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the logistics. I mean, after nursing three kiddos for way longer than I’ve expected, there’s just nothing there. For real. When I lay down, they kind of just slide off my chest.
The nurse practitioner performing my physical, however, reminded me that the technicians who do mammograms are professionals and deal with all shapes and sizes of breasts all day, every day. And if the screening really and truly cannot be conducted in the traditional way, an ultrasound can be done as an alternative.
Knowing there was a backup eased my mind a bit, but I still wasn’t sure how it would all go. I am fortunate that this first mammogram was scheduled for routine reasons and not because of any concerns. I can only imagine the added anxiety in that scenario. My heart was pumping pretty fast as it were already.
When I was called back to the exam room, I was given instructions to undress from the waist down, wipe my armpits with a baby wipe–presumably to wipe off any deodorant–and don a gown open to the front. None of these things took long so I had plenty of time to inspect the giant machine looming in the corner. I couldn’t decide if the dim lighting added to the ambience or not.
The technician immediately launched into her spiel once she returned to the room. While it was obvious that she had said the same thing to countless women, her words were reassuring. The first thing she said was, “Everything you’ve heard about mammograms? Forget it.” (And yes, I fully recognize the irony of what I am writing in this blog post.)
The entire screening was quick and only entailed four pictures. Similar to dental x-rays, once you are in position, the technician steps out of the way and snaps the image. The difference from dental x-rays, however, is that with a mammogram, there is some serious (wo)manhandling to get into position. Again, since I’ve been nursing for the better part of a decade, my boobs haven’t fully belonged to me for a long time, so this didn’t bother me, but I understand that getting so up close and personal with a stranger could potentially be uncomfortable.
I also had to get up close and personal with the mammography unit itself. I suppose if you are more well-endowed than I am, there would be a little more space between you and the machine. However, I felt like I was giving it a great big and super-awkward hug. It certainly did not hug me back. When everything was all set, the plates moved down to compress my breast between the shelf it was resting on. It didn’t hurt exactly–pain is relative after giving birth naturally three times–but I was thankful that the pressure only lasted a few seconds.
Another helpful thing the technician told me was that since this was my first mammogram, it would be used as a baseline for future mammograms to be compared to, sort of like a pre-test. She also said not to be freaked out surprised if I received notice that more images were needed, as this was very common. In fact, one of my scans had to be redone on the spot because I was “too thin,” which caused some skin folds to get in the way. (I really appreciated how she made my tiny boobs sound like a good thing. Rest assured, small-chested mama, you too, can experience the joy of a mammogram just like all your friends.)