Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hurts So Good

Welcome to the month of pink. For those who have been living in a cave for the past decade, October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  It's the one month out of the year in which the word "breast" is spoken freely and clearly and without any tinge of sexuality and pink is everywhere: on hats, billboards, and the shirts of the evening news anchors.

I know the ad I chose to illustrate this post isn't pink (except for the tasteful pink ribbon in the word "breast"). But it is funny! And it played off of my second point about how breasts are icons of sex. The fact that the ad is from India also points out how ingrained this month is in the world's consciousness. Way to go, India!


In honor of this great month, I got my annual mammogram.

Mammograms have to be in the top 10 of weird diagnostic tools. Most medical procedures find you sitting, or reclining, with only the part in question exposed to light. But for a mammogram, you have to stand up while your breasts, one at a time, are clamped in a vice. The rest of your body is free to move (as if!), but you are literally held in place by a machine that is gripping your boob. So there you stand, in your regular shoes (which in my case happened to be high heels) while your top half is draped in a hospital gown, in a cold room (the machines have to stay cool). In summary: you're half naked, in heels, with your nipples announcing the temperature. Maybe breast cancer awareness month is about sex after all?.


But that's all foreshadowing of what's to come. Because once the real procedure begins, the train of mild discomfort and indignity moves on into the station of painful because mammograms hurt. Like holy heck. But, not to sound all twisted about it, it's a good hurt. Because a mammogram that captures the bits off to the sides - the chest wall, the underarm area - requires a lot of pulling and squeezing and manipulating of the breast tissue. And squeezing. And more squeezing. But all those machinations are important because you really want those parts shown on your mammogram. So I don't mind.

Fourteen years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, I felt a lump in my breast. As my pregnancy progressed, the lump grew. Daily. I brought it to my doctors' attention, we decided that an excisional biopsy - one that would remove the entire lump - was the way to go. I remember being on the operating table under local anesthesia thinking how strange it was to be carrying new life while being worried about my own. I remember the smells - the sharp, medicinal smell of the sterilizing fluid followed by the warm, metallic smell of blood as the surgeon first sterilized, then sliced into my breast. I turned my head away from the surgeon, while he engaged me in chatter. Fortunately, the lump was not cancerous. But it was a very scary time.

So that's why I don't mind that mammograms hurt. Because I want every inch of my mammary tissue exposed so the radiologists can look for cancer.

Over the years, as I've aged, mammograms have become a fact of life for me. Every other year at first, and now, every year, with a scary year during which I had one breast checked three times because of irregularities on the mammograms. So far so good.

Why don't all women get mammograms? The reasons are as varied as the women themselves. Some women don't have time (or don't think they have time). Some women don't have insurance and don't realize there are places to get free, or reduced price, mammograms. Some women are afraid: of the procedure, or of the possible bad news it can bring. All completely understandable reasons, but not very valid. Because catching cancers early gives you the best options for treatment.

So, happy October, friends. Take care of yourselves, and get your mammogram. Even though it hurts, it really could save your life. And that's good.

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