Just when you thought it was safe . . .

The opening sequence of Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give” is a laugh-out-loud montage that rings poignantly true to any woman (and that’s most of us over fifty) who dutifully does the annual torturing of the breast otherwise known as a mammogram. To a backdrop of the Roches singing “No Shoes,” breasts in all sizes, all shapes are pinched and positioned for that no-smile (don’t even think of saying ‘cheese’), hold-your-breath picture. In a film that is as much about love and guilt and responsibility as it is about the way the smallest gesture can make a difference in someone’s life, poking some fun at a procedure that is anything but matter-of-fact imparts a touch of irony.  It is the job of the X-ray technician, in this case, Rebecca Hall, to get it right. She does the best she can.

Cut to a small waiting room in a large medical group, Anywhere USA. Three women are seated, no eye contact. One is reading a book, another filling out an intake form. The third, yours truly, is riffling through a magazine, trying to make sense of words I’m having trouble reading.  Down the narrow hallway there is laughter, the camaraderie of technicians on a break, which should reassure me of their humanity.  But there’s something about being in this room, with its cheerless furnishings and walls painted a color you forget the minute you’re out of there, that makes waiting itself an act of survival.  I should be better equipped to deal – with all those good breathing skills I practice and the 1 mg of Adavan that I save for times like this. And yet, anxiety, by its very nature, is rooted in something unknown; the waiting – first to get the procedure over with, then to get the results – only makes it worse.  If there’s any reassurance to be had, it’s in knowing I’m not alone in feeling the way I do.

A woman, just out of the X-ray room, takes a seat next to me. She breaks the ice, tells me about her daughter, high-risk but so far/so good, and her own health issues.  She has reason to be thankful for screening procedures, despite the anxiety they give rise to.  It’s hard to disagree, and yet, looking around the room, all of us in those gowns that hide nothing, really, I imagine every woman saying to herself, ‘please let me not be called back in for another X-ray.’ Even if it’s just for a clearer picture. Please let it not be me.

It’s a vicious cycle: anxiety over breast cancer sends us for mammograms, which in turn give rise to an anxiety that some say may outweigh the benefits. And yet the abstraction of statistical odds is no measure against the power of one, you know the story well, a woman alive today because of early detection.  The latest studies only complicate the equation,  you do the math:  state-of-the-art treatment, coupled with mammograms for women 50-69 years of age, reduced the death rate by 10 percent, in contrast to the 15-25 percent it was decades ago; for women over 70 who availed themselves of new treatment but no mammograms, the death rate fell by 8 percent.  What’s a sensible woman to do?

The technician calls me back into the X-ray room, uh-oh. She has learned not to show alarm, the truth being there may be no cause at all for it. And yet those heart-pounding minutes of waiting – again – for the radiologist’s reading (nothing suspicious, she will, thankfully, tell me) seem like a lifetime.



8 thoughts on “Just when you thought it was safe . . .

  1. New studies (well, not that new) say that getting mammograms actually increases your risk, so it’s a catch-22, especially for those of us who have already had breast cancer and are still quite young. I just throw my hands up in the air and deal with it. If I’ve learned anything it’s that if it is cancer, it’s not the end of the world.

  2. Oh, I so can relate to the anxiety of a mammogram. At my last one, the technician asked me if I had worn any lotion or deodorant because there were some funny spots on my x-ray. I purposely hadn’t, so I almost had an anxiety attack right then and there! Thank goodness the radiologist’s report came back negative! I hope I live to see the complete cure for breast cancer someday. (Or any cancer!)

  3. Deborah, I recently went in for my mammogram. True, it’s uncomfortable, painful even. But it’s nothing compared to a colonoscopy. I’m due for my second one next year, and already I’m dreading it. Yikes.

    Glad your reading was fine. So was mine, thankfully.

  4. You are a brave one to go in and endure the anxiety. If I’d been you leafing through that magazine I wouldn’t have been able to focus on a single word of anything. My mind would have been in the torture chamber. I’m afraid I’m not that sensible or brave.

    I don’t know why this post conjured up that old song by Blood, Sweat, & Tears “And When I Die.” Well, yes I do. “And all I ask of dying is to go naturally. Oh I want to go naturally.” Those lines are my mantra. Within me there’s a fear of detection and I’d rather not receive a death sentence. I just don’t want to hear such a verdict.

  5. You’d think by now, if we can put “Rover” on Mars, we can come up with a better way of diagnosing breast cancer other than having our tit stuck in a vice. Also,I agree, it beats the hell out of a colonoscopy.

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