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The Call No Woman (or Mom) Wants to Receive

Photograph by Twenty20

I had my first mammogram a year ago, and it went better than I expected. I anticipated a lot of pain, but I was pleasantly surprised. The tech had been lovely, gentle and kind.

But when I returned last week, everything was different.

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I sat in a chair beside the tech, squeezing my blue and white hospital gown closed while the tech asked me questions about my medical history and tapped the answers into her computer. After telling her when my last menstrual cycle had started, she asked, “Do you have a daughter?”

“I do,” I said, smiling.

“Oh. Does she look like you?” she asked.

“No, she doesn’t look like me at all,” I said, wondering where this was going.

“Oh, that’s too bad. You’re lucky. You’re really exotic. Too bad your daughter doesn’t look like you,” she blurted.

“My daughter’s really adorable, so I think it all worked out OK,” I managed. Was this some sort of strange mammogram foreplay? Was I on candid camera?

The technician led me over to the mammography machine and began posing me in awkward angles while cranking up the compression. I winced. “Sorry. I guess I won’t make it any tighter,” she said with a hint of disappointment. Now I felt like a wuss, as if she was doing me a favor by setting the tit device on “low.”

But the crushing pain overrode my ego. I was literally in a game of Titty Twister, and I was losing.

“Hold your breath,” she instructed me, in case I wasn’t already uncomfortable enough.

“You have to be nicer to me,” I warned my husband immediately after the call. “I probably have the cancer.”

She took three pictures of each breast, as she posed me in increasingly odd contortions. I was pretty sure the next step would be me riding up an escalator while she rode the adjacent escalator down, bringing my boobs along with her.

I left the office shaking my head and cradling my chest, but quickly shook off the experience and went on with my week. After all, a little discomfort during a mammogram is a small price to pay for a clean bill of breast health.

But the next morning, I got the call. “We’re calling to schedule a follow-up from your mammogram screening,” a woman’s voice said through the phone. “We’d like to get you in for a second mammogram on one of your breasts, followed by an ultrasound.”

“Uh … OK,” I said. In the rational part of my mind, I reminded myself that the callback was probably because I have dense breast tissue, which can make it harder to detect breast cancer and also harder to rule it out, meaning women with dense breast tissue often get called in for more pictures.

The rest of my mind went cuckoo. “You have to be nicer to me,” I warned my husband immediately after the call. “I probably have the cancer.”

My follow-up appointments were scheduled for the next week—I’d have another mammogram and then an ultrasound immediately afterward.

For the week of waiting, I alternated between calm and crazed. Sometimes I was able to soothe myself with statistics—like the fact that callbacks are pretty common (for every 1,000 women who have a mammogram, 100 will get callbacks) but so are false alarms (about five of the 1,000 women will ultimately be diagnosed with breast cancer). Other times, I pondered what size implants I’d get after my double mastectomy. Would I go big? Or replicate the small but perfectly lovely breasts I hadn’t appreciated until it was too late?

When it was finally time for my appointments, I was happy to get a different technician. She was kind as she squished the suspicious breast into the mammo machine, and she didn’t comment on my exotic looks—or my daughter.

She ushered me to the waiting room to sit until it was time for the ultrasound. A few minutes later, she reappeared with news. “The doctor doesn’t think it’s anything to worry about,” she said smiling. “But you’ll still get the ultrasound to confirm.”

I exhaled, but my anxious mind wouldn’t let me completely off the hook.

A young woman led me into a different room for the ultrasound. It reminded me of the ultrasounds I had during my pregnancies, except instead of little alien-looking fetuses, it was just my inert left breast on the screen. “I’m going to go check with the doctor,” the woman told me after several minutes of waving her wand across my chest. I searched her face for clues about my fate, but she showed nothing.

I laid there for a few minutes, clutching my gown and trying to breathe.

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She popped back into the room, smiling.

“The doctor says it looks like a cyst. You don’t need any follow up,” she said. I fought the urge to throw my arms around her.

“Thank you so much,” I said, grinning as my left nipple peeked out of my gown as if to wave goodbye.

As relieved as I was, I couldn’t help but think of all the women who aren't given the all-clear, all the moms who return home to a less certain future. I felt a strange rush of gratitude for my healthy little boobies. “Thanks, guys,” I whispered, pulling my clothes back on.

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