We women over 40 should get mammograms if our doctors recommend that we do. But even if it’s true that a lump is hard to detect with self-examination, we should also show some sense and check ourselves out, in the shower, say, when the skin is soapy and we can really feel the tissue underneath.

Last year I had a mammogram that I wrote about.


“It’s Cryin’ Time Again, You’re Gonna Squeeze Me,” I jokingly called the piece, echoing the old Ray Charles song.


Maybe it was funny in the early parts when I related my conversation with the imaging professional administering the exam:


“I have to warn you, I’m a fainter,” I told her as she screwed together the two icy plates of her high-tech vise. But really I said this only after she had asked me four times if I was all right, which of course began to make me feel that I wasn’t.


The truth is I mostly fainted in my early years, like in church when I could often be found gurgling in the pew, half caught under the kneeler. Or like that time a creaky old GP offered to remove two tiny warts for me, causing me to still have twin scars of the exact kind you’d get if someone stabbed two glowing cigarettes into your flesh.


But the mammographer was breezy about all this.


“Breakfast is the key,” she smiled. “People only faint if they haven’t had breakfast. And nobody faints after 11 in the morning.” 


“OK,” I said as we stood there, she fully clothed, I as naked from the waist up as the Venus De Milo. It was well past 11. It was, in fact, 5:30 at night.


Then she asked if I did regular self-exams, causing me to blurt out the terrible truth.


“Sure! Er, sometimes. Well, no, not really.”


“Nobody does them,” she said, the geniality in her voice suddenly gone.


She didn’t chastise me the way they do at the dentist’s when they ask about flossing and you lie and say you do it all the time.


She didn’t give me a lecture. She didn’t so much as sigh. If I wanted to get sick it was fine with her, is what she was saying in all but words.


Anyway she was dead on her feet: “I’ve been doing this since 7:30 this morning.” And now here it was almost 6.


“It’s been a long day for you,” I said, hoping for the return of her former warmth.


But “Yep,” was all she said back. Just one little tight-lipped “yep,” and in the ensuing silence I felt the full weight of her frustration with a group of people who leave themselves open to all kinds of bad possibilities just because they‘re too “busy,” or too distracted, or too limited in their vision to slide their hands around on their own bare skin now and then.


The memory of this visit lives vividly in my mind, and now here we are again in the month dedicated to breast cancer awareness.


We women over 40 should get mammograms if our doctors recommend that we do. But even if it’s true that a lump is hard to detect with self-examination, we should also show some sense and check ourselves out, in the shower, say, when the skin is soapy and we can really feel the tissue underneath.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a program called the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, which works with health departments and other groups to provide low-cost or free mammograms to women who qualify. Find more information by calling your health department or 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636).


Write to Terry at terrymarotta@verizon.net or c/o Ravenscroft Press, P.O. Box 270, Winchester, MA 01890. Find more stories and pictures at her daily blog, www.terrymarotta.wordpress.com.