“You haven’t been for a mammogram yet?” my friends asked me in December, over bubbly and an al fresco lunch in Plett. I’m usually pretty good at admin (a mammogram can be filed under admin) and getting things done, but I’d let this slip. I always told myself I’d wait until after I had finished breastfeeding to go for the test, but that was 13 months ago, and therefore around 60 weeks of procrastination!
My gynae advised me to go when I was 40, but because I was pregnant and then breastfeeding, I left it, until the stern and incredulous “why haven’t you?” from my friends drove me to type “book mammogram” on the top of my Google list.
At the beginning of the year, I contacted my friend to find out who she recommended. She recently had breast cancer and gone through treatment, so I felt she would know the who’s who of good radiologists. I made my appointment, and it felt as routine as booking a manicure. The morning of, I started feeling a little anxious and wished I had asked my husband or friend to come. There were no indications that I might be at risk of cancer, but I still felt a bit edgy and alone.
I waited in the reception area before being called to the changing area where I got into a clean gown, put my belongings and clothes in a basket, and sat to wait. It was tragi-funny watching women carrying their baskets from room to room, and I couldn’t help feel sad for women who around the world go for regular mammograms, and who might leave with news they were dreading.
While I was waiting, a woman in a gown came to change back into her clothes, her shoulders slumped in defeat. From my couch, I could hear deep sobs coming from the changeroom, and I was reminded again of how our bodies betray us, and how our intended life script gets rewritten. I was going to comfort her, but someone from the clinic came to get her and they went to another room.
“I know a mammogram is a simple test, and that the invasiveness I felt is negligible compared to what women go through daily, but I wasn’t ever comfortable or at ease.”
I was up next and I honestly didn’t expect the humiliation and fear I felt getting my boobs manoeuvred, pushed and pulled to get into the right position in the machine. It was an unexpected reaction – I thought it would feel like a simple X-ray, but it’s one thing having my chest or finger X-rayed – it’s another having my feminine parts pulled and placed on a block.
While I had the kindest radiographer, who said she had been putting boobs into position for the last nine years, I felt alone and embarrassed, and my bad nervous “jokes” were met with no response. I then headed to another room to have the ultrasound, and again I felt exposed. I know a mammogram is a simple test, and that the invasiveness I felt is negligible compared to what women go through daily, but I wasn’t ever comfortable or at ease.
After getting the all-clear, I walked to my car, a little emotional. That feeling of relief, coupled with some sadness that some people don’t get to leave there with great prospects. I got upset for all the women before me, some of whom I knew, who have not survived, for those who have to fight daily, and for those whose battles are around the corner.
- Mammograms are essential screening tools. Even if you don’t feel a lump, a mammogram could pick up something that you don’t. Finding breast cancer early reduces your risk of dying by around 30%.
- While there are mixed opinions about this, my radiologist said that mammograms should be performed every year from the age of 40. Those with a higher risk might need to start screening earlier.
- Ask around for the best radiologist that suits you – chat to your network and see which radiology centre suits you the best. Some women prefer women doctors, while others choose a good bedside manner over someone very technical and straightforward. The procedure involves minimal physical discomfort and pain.
- I’ve read that breast ultrasounds go a long way in diagnosing breast cancer, and picking up things that a mammogram might miss.
- Take someone for company if you’re feeling anxious – they can wait in the waiting room if you don’t want them to see your boobs! Chances are the results will be clear, but I think it would be a great comfort to have someone on hand, if just for good company.
- The ultrasound involves that squeezy bottle of gel, which often reminds me of tomato sauce being squirted on a hotdog. You’ll get given wads of paper to wipe your boobs, but maybe take some wipes, and don’t wear your best bra.
- I’m on a hospital plan with Discovery, and not only got Vitality points, but they covered the cost of the mammogram and ultrasound (you’d obviously need to check what your plan covers).
Tanya Kovarsky is a mom of two (Max, 8 and Rebecca, 1.5 years) and works by day in PR and communications, and by night as a blogger on Rattle and Mum. She loves Paris, Jelly Tots, pink things, makeup and sneakers, and running (she can tell her kids that she’s run 11 Comrades and 14 Two Oceans). She also has a personal blog, Dear Max + Rebecca.