Nobody chooses to spend a sunny Tuesday afternoon with each of one’s norks compressed, being gently irradiated.
“Sorry about this,” she says, nudging my arm over my head. “We just need to get the breast up and away from the ribcage.” Forgive me, darlings, but a mammogram really was the highlight of my week. It’s not what I’d call a top five experience; I mean, nobody chooses to spend a sunny Tuesday afternoon with each of one’s norks compressed between a baseplate and a top-plate, one knee bent and eyes to the wall, being gently irradiated by a kindly technologist. But when you turn 45, there you are. You accept it as one of those things your younger self couldn’t have imagined would ever happen to you, like pregnancy haemorrhoids, or maybe divorce.
I arrived late, as I often do. “I’m sorry,” I puffed to the reception staff, “I was due for a breast scan five minutes ago.”
“Oh dear,” said the receptionist closest to me. “They’ll only have time to do one.” I paused, then tittered along with her.
“Well,” I indicated my modest chest, “it’s really not going to take long.”
How wrong I was. Anything more than a handful would have been easier to get between the plates but unfortunately, I’ve always had less. Getting my girls to lie flat wasn’t easy – they had to be kneaded into place, like small balls of pizza dough.
As I gazed at the wall art (sheep, in a field) it struck me that as a computer uploaded a digital impression of my breasts, millions of viewers were trying not to gaze at a much more famous pair. At that moment, porn star Stormy Daniels was explaining to the world how, in the lead-up to the presidential election, Donald Trump’s legal team had intimidated her into staying quiet about her sexual encounter with him, years before. The interview was about money, not sex, so Daniels wore a buttoned-up coral shirt over a body that until now has made her a living. A body which may yet unravel a presidency.
Daniels’ interview gave her body a voice. But looking at my mammogram images – teardrops of soft tissue, magnified into a constellation of silver dots – made me lose mine.
It’s weird to look at your own insides on an ultrasound. I suppose when some people are shown a dental X-ray (of their own kissing, laughing mouth), they might feel relieved to see their whole teeth, all the way down to the root, like a grinning row of fence batons. It might reassure them; make them think: “Oh, right! My skull is under there!” But I feel myself divide in two.
My thinking brain goes well, of course! I have cells, and there they are! But emotionally, I’m in shock. I remember my amniocentesis – agreeing to it, being pregnant at 38 with our first baby, having weighed the risks and benefits; holding my partner’s hand and staying still for the doctor. But when the needle went in, a tear slid down my cheek.
These close encounters with our bodies – medical encounters, which are never on our terms – are what we bear when we live in a society that values our individual lives. Saying “I hate hospitals” might be true but it’s lazy, too. Hospitals need to improve, in myriad ways – we’ve all had bad experiences, or heard of them – but I like to find snatches of humanity in these scans and screens, these moments where your soul and personality, while interesting, aren’t as significant as the cells, stars, and contrails whirling and fading inside your body.
I’m P keha, without religion, so this comes more easily to me.
Culturally, spiritually, hospitals don’t offend me or rub out my identity in ways that can deeply wound or intimidate many people. But accepting too much medical information, as I now seem to have to do in my 40s, is also a conscious act of will, and grace, even for me. Somehow, I must find my peace with it.
This is how I do it. I talk; I talk like a two-stroke. At one point, we break off the mammogram to talk about the merits of hot yoga. The technician bends easily at the waist and shows me the Polar Bear, the Downward-Facing Dog, and the Sun Salutation.
I don’t know who feels more ridiculous – me, hugging an expensive overhead projector with my top off and my nipples on show, puckered by their own embarrassment or the technician, her head upside down and her palm in the sky.
She was so nice. To think her job is to settle dozens of nervous women a day. I’ll think of her kindness when I remember the mammogram and, whatever the results, I know the sun will still come up, the dogs will face down and my cells will divide, over and over, until they don’t.
“At one point, we break off the mammogram to talk about hot yoga. The technician bends and shows me the Polar Bear.”