(This post follows on from an earlier introduction to this story, called Botticelli’s Venus at the Breast Clinic. If you haven’t already read that, I recommend you follow the arrow back to earlier posts and read it before starting Six Weeks under BreastScreen’s Wing.)
At the Newcastle BreastScreen clinic, I have an appointment for a mammogram. My first ever (even though I’m 62) … Is this why I’ve been slotted in so quickly? When I rang to arrange a time, I was surprised how soon there was an appointment available, after I’d been quizzed as to whether there was any special reason why I was booking (“No, I’ve just had a routine check-up with my doctor, “ I said, “and he’s given me a referral –“ just as he had (I didn’t say) every year that I’ve been going to him).
It’s 11.30 on a Tuesday morning. A cool, greyish day with showers about. The waiting area at the clinic is spacious and light and almost empty, apart from a couple of other women of roughly my age and a slightly older man who is having a very lively chat with someone while his wife disappears into the examination area. He is joking that he’s glad he doesn’t have to have a mammogram himself, imagine man breasts being squashed like that … The woman laughs but also reminds him that men can get breast cancer too – and the thought of that — and what tests might then be done to find it, starting with the impossibly discomforting mammogram! – is what I have in my head as a neat woman in the clinic’s uniform appears near the screened-off area and calls my name.
When I trot over to her, I’m led into another waiting area with far more women in it. They are lined up against two walls on simple chairs, and some of them are wearing hospital gowns.
This sounds more like the procedure my 92 year old mother reports she’s experienced at St Andrews Hospital in Toowoomba. It always takes her a whole morning to get her mammogram done. She arrives at 9 – and so does everyone else, she says – and then they’re all put into gowns and they just wait until they can be examined – and then they wait again (with a cup of tea and a sandwich) until they’re told everything is fine.
My mother’s mammogram is never painful, she says. But this isn’t what I’ve been told by other women. The reports of bruising and nasty squashing are what have put me off going for one for all those years. That, and the sighs of my previous doctor at Family Planning as she examined my breasts through all the decades before menopause – they were so often lumpy (difficult breasts to mammogram, she predicted – rightly, as I’m about to discover), but only at certain times of my cycle.
Today, I’m led quickly past all the gowned women. In the Mammogram Room, again I’m quizzed as to why I have finally decided to come for the procedure.
“Is there anything you’re worried about? Any changes in the breasts?” No, no. It’s just a response to a routine urging from my ever vigilant and diligent GP.
So, off come the cardigan and T-shirt and bra. And here is the equipment, plus the slab where a breast has to be persuaded to stay while it’s X-rayed. I’m short, the position is a little high. The left breast becomes a ball of flesh to be laid out and pressed. I know, more or less, what is going to happen – we see it quite regularly on the TV news whenever there is a report about breast cancer: a woman naked to the waist with an appendage from her chest being pushed like a plump sausage, and flattened for the machine.
But it is still a shock to experience for the first time. As the pressure increases, I wonder how long I can endure it. Mercifully, it’s over before it becomes too painful.
The radiographer shows me a set of two pictures on the back of the door. Two daisies: one a little blurry; the other so crisply depicted that every grain and spot in the petal can be seen. ‘This is what the mammogram needs to do,” she says – “give an image so clear that even tiny grains show up. That can’t happen unless the pressure is strong enough …”
I’m shocked by the pictures. Finding lumps the size of peas, not cherries, is what I’m more used to hearing about. It’s what the standard brochure for the clinic still shows, too. Now it appears we are actually looking for specks smaller than grains of rice.
“It’s particularly difficult with breasts like yours,” she says, “with dense tissue. And dense-tissued breasts are the ones most likely to develop cancer.”
I don’t know if I’ve become more stressed with the progression through the procedure – the third X-ray is an excruciating squeeze. I am on the verge of fainting by the time it stops. We need a small pause before I can cope with one more prod and push into place, followed by the clamping.
Then I’m relieved to hear that it’s over. “Next time you’ll know to relax more,” the radiographer says. “And then it won’t hurt so much!”
It wasn’t her fault, was it? No, it was mine. I’ve been naughtily putting this off for so many years (expecting it to hurt!) – now I’ve been punished and chastened, but if I’m a good girl in future, even the machine will be kind to me.
A few bruises on my pale skin are surely a small price for this initiation. All the same, I’m glad as I leave that it should be two years before I will be asked to do this again.
Six weeks later, I’ll realise that this was the easy bit. What’s still to come for me at BreastScreen, and what might have happened in my future if I’d put off a mammogram for another year or so, are far more disturbing.