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The Truth About Mammograms

Photograph by Getty Images

"Hmm. What's this?"

When you're in the exam room getting your annual pap, having a natural conversation isn't easy. One of the most awkward — but necessary — things a woman must do in her life is to willingly, by appointment, leave the comfort of her home to don a paper gown and get poked, groped and scraped in her most intimate areas by a near-stranger, all while making lighthearted banter as if they just sat down together to have a casual cup of coffee.

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But no matter how ridiculous it feels to chat about the weather while a doctor kneads your breast like self-rising bread dough, it's far superior to hearing the words, "Hmm. What's this?"

That was how I discovered I had a lump in my breast. I'm still a few years from the recommended age for a mammogram, but due to my family history with cancer (lots of it) and my usual history with breasts (non-lumpy), she went ahead and scheduled one. The soonest available appointment was three weeks away. "No big deal," I thought. "I can wait. I'm sure it's nothing serious."

Indeed, I handled it really, really well — right up until I got to the parking lot. Then the sunshine hit my face, and I immediately thought about the possibility of the sunshine not hitting my face, and my face immediately crumpled into an ugly cry.

When almost everyone you're related to has/had cancer, you get accustomed to living with the assumption that you're probably going to end up with cancer someday, too. What you don't get accustomed to is coming face-to-face with the possibility that the cancer could already be IN YOU, right that very second, and you won't know for sure for another three weeks, and in the meantime there's nothing you can do but wait.

Three weeks is a long time to wonder if your boobs are trying to kill you.

I was amazed at how many women are avoiding recommended screenings because they're afraid of the pain or the answers.

Not to mention, mammograms themselves don't exactly have a very good reputation. They've been likened to slamming your breasts in a car door, leaning into a meat grinder, and smashing your chest between two mechanical salad bar sneeze guards. The pain, some people tell you, could bring tears to the eyes of a 250-pound linebacker under anesthesia. In equal measure I both desperately wanted answers and dreaded how I was going to get them.

Finally, the Big Day came. I sat across from the Boob Flattener, reciting my date of birth to the technician and nervously sweating though my paper vest. (Did you know that paper gowns come in vest form? Sexy.) She reassured me that it wasn't going to hurt, and I laughed like a maniac because everyone knows that medical personnel get paid extra to lie about how much things are going to hurt. But you know what?

IT DIDN'T HURT.

I was amazed, really.

Thankfully, my lump turned out to be benign. Later, when I talked about it online, I was also amazed at how many women are avoiding recommended screenings and tests because they're afraid of the pain, or afraid of the answers they might get.

I'm here to tell you - do not be afraid.

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I know I'm very lucky to have a clean bill of health. I also know I'm not off the hook; someday, the results might not be so favorable, and that terrifies me. But avoidance is no way to deal with fear. Empower yourself with knowledge. If it's time for you to get your mammogram, I promise it isn't as bad as you've heard — and as scary as the answers might be, not knowing the answers is far scarier.

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