Last week, I went for my annual mammogram. Some of you are too young, or are underinsured, or are too male, to know what this experience can be like. For you, I will try to elaborate.
Begin by imagining your breast on the most sensitive day of the month (guys, I invite you to substitute any other nerve-laden orb to which you are very closely physically attached). Now take this breast (or other orb) and settle it onto a large, thick, cold sheet of steel. Stand awkwardly as a smiling technician compresses a second steel shelf down onto your tender orb. Stay right there while those two pieces of steel squeeze toward one another until you want to scream and squirm because of the pain. But don’t move! The technician is sweetly explaining that she really needs you to stand very still as she screws those two sheets of steel just a little more snugly together. And so you do stand very still, because this is important. Imagine if you will, that the pain is intense, but just barely tolerable. Now stand perfectly still for about a minute while the image is taken. Finally, you can release the breath you didn’t even realize you were holding as the compression relaxes just a bit.
PHEW, it’s over, or so you think. But now, you need to shift your body just a little and submit that same breast (or other orb – boys!) to more compression in a slightly altered position. Two more images on this side, and then you get to do it all over again with the other one! Each time that those shelves of metal come squeezing your flesh into a shape you didn’t imagine possible, you feel surges of pain radiate down into your fingertips. But finally, it is over. You have survived the experience of submitting your breast (or other orb) to be the filling in a sandwich wherein the bread is the thickest, toughest steel, and the greatest weight imaginable has made your body part into something thinner than a slice of bologna. Fun, huh?
And so, the other day, my annual mammogram behind me, I walked out to my car and sat behind the steering wheel. I breathed deeply for a moment. My chest was burning and my fingertips were still tingling with the sensation of radiated pain. I took a few moments to compose myself to prepare for the drive back to my office. Then I glanced at the clock. The entire ordeal had taken just seventeen minutes.
I started thinking about other women’s pain during their mammogram. And as I sat there, the focus on my own aching chest changed into a reflection on something more. I started to think about what happens when those seventeen minutes are the beginning of fear and hurt, rather than just a painful interruption in one’s day.
I couldn’t help but think about my friend Diane, a two-time survivor. She feels fear for several days after her mammogram, as she waits - holding her breath - for the “clean” report she hopes will come.
I remembered a woman I met on last year’s Walk, who described an odd look in the technician’s eyes, as she proceeded to “just take a few more images”. When we walked together in Philly, she was between chemo and radiation for the cancer that had been discovered through that mammogram.
I thought about the pain of a mammogram when it leads to difficult decisions about chemo, radiation and surgery. Seventeen minutes of compression seems a lot less painful than imagining making the choice to have part of one’s body cut away.
Seventeen minutes of discomfort seemed fairly insignificant as I thought of the family of a woman who was diagnosed too late because she didn’t have insurance for a mammogram. For that family, seventeen minutes that never even happened cost them a lifetime of loving memories.
My mind swirled through example after example, illustrating that my measly seventeen minutes were only worth considering for about seventeen minutes.
This reflection brought to mind the reasons that I keep walking and crewing in the 3Day Walks for Breast Cancer. The funds that I have helped to raise ensure that more women will have mammograms. My fundraising helps to pay for vital research so that mammograms that do lead to frightening diagnoses are more likely to have less frightening outcomes. My footsteps help to support community programs and education. My footsteps are matched by the footsteps, fundraising and hard work of all of the 3Day community. Together, we make an impact that will last way longer than seventeen minutes. Our work will last a lifetime. Our work provides lifetimes. And everyone deserves a lifetime.
If you are over forty, or have a family history of breast cancer, please schedule a mammogram right away. Not all breast cancer can be identified with a mammogram. However, mammograms – combined with regular self-exams – continue to be the most reliable diagnosis tool for catching breast cancer early. And early diagnosis means more survivors. Spending seventeen minutes as the filling in a breast sandwich seems a small price to pay for your health and well-being. Please! Run, don’t walk, to your nearest mammogram center. And then, once you’re finished, walk 60 miles with me in the fight against breast cancer.