Monday, January 26, 2009

My First Mammogram

Like a colonoscopy, pap smear or credit check, a mammogram is an essential but humiliating part of good health maintenance. And like those things, mammograms aren’t fun, even though the word itself sounds like an old fashioned but festive form of communication. “Time to celebrate? Send her a mammogram!”

The first thing you notice when you get your first mammogram is that it’s all women in the place. Unlike the sonogram business – a happier technology experience, though no less invasive – there are no male nurses, technicians or even doctors around.

First you fill out a form that has a diagram featuring two “normal” breasts. The boobs on the form are fuller and better shaped than your boobs. You’re supposed to draw on them, indicating any areas where you and your bazookas have had trouble. I had no disturbing medical history but for honesty’s sake, I added a few stretch marks.

“Don’t tie all the ties on the johnnie; then there’s too many to untie,” warned the technician, who had earlier asked if I had applied deodorant today. This is the woman who, very shortly, would be manhandling my breasts into what I will call “the giant boob crusher machine.” I told her I hadn’t used any deodorant that morning.

“Good,” she said. “You’d just have to wipe it off.” They don’t want you getting white paste or clear gel strong enough for a man all over their expensive radiology equipment. Never mind that you’re likely to be sweating more than usual today, as irrational fears of oh, say, cancer, dance through your head as each phase of this bizarre ritual passes.

I could see that my technician, Barbara, or Barb, as her nametag read, had done this a thousand times. I was a mammogram virgin. “Will it hurt?” I asked, eyeing the giant machine and feeling bralessly vulnerable in my untied johnnie, which was like an 80’s half shirt version of a johnnie: it stopped at the waist. Barb frowned into her computer screen. “It’s uncomfortable,” she allowed. Oh yes. That’s also the word they use to describe labor before you’ve had it.

I was studying the giant anatomical illustrations of healthy breasts when suddenly Barb was on me. Before I could say, hey, that’s weird, she was applying a tiny round sticker with a metal ball in the center to each of my nipples. “This is so the technician has an easier time reading your breast.”

I glanced down at the tiny dots and thought dually of my son’s obsession with round band aids, and the movie Showgirls.

“What, no tassles?” Barb didn’t laugh. The room grew chilly, or maybe it was just because I had no shirt.

“Step up here,” Barb ordered. I obeyed, and Barb placed my right sample onto a plastic tray on the machine. Above the tray was something that looked like one of those machines that Wile E. Coyote gets flattened by, then waddles frantically about like a pancake with flapping feet and a disoriented expression.

“We have to compress the breast in order to see all the tissue properly,” Barb explained. This was before I understood that “compress” means “violently squash by slowly increasing degrees.”

With my breast ceremoniously sandwiched between the tray and the ACME pancake maker, Barb twisted the knob, which is really another word for vice. The metal lip sunk down crisply to meet the plastic tray, and my newly compressed knocker wasn’t going anywhere.

“Ow,” I said, which was an understatement if you want to know. Barb gave the knob another twist, and I was reminded of the rock climber who sawed off his own arm with a Swiss Army knife after becoming trapped under a rock. What if Barb left the room and there was an earthquake? Would anyone find me, wearing a pink half Johnnie, trapped there by my own mammary? If I was discovered, could I ever recover from the indignity?

“Hang in there,” said Barb, and I could smell that she smoked. Maybe all that stress worrying about cancer every day for dozens of strangers had made her take up the habit.

Then it was time for the next shot. They don’t tell you that each boob is going to be squished (I mean compressed) at three different angles.

“I’m just going to move your arm forward here,” said Barb, meaning, “so I can force all this extra flab by your armpit and collarbone into the vice.”

When it was over, I asked Barb when I would get the results. “We can call you later today,” she said. Wow! This was way better than an amnio, where you stick a needle into your pregnant belly and then wait for two weeks to find out if your baby has brain damage. I had to sign a form that gave the hospital permission to leave a detailed message on my machine. I thanked Barb for violently squishing my rack repeatedly, but not in those exact words.

Then I asked if I could keep the stickers. She didn’t answer.