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The Buddy System

BODY WATCH

Getting a mammogram can be scary enough for a grown woman. And the thought of going by oneself? Even scarier. These friends decided to make a day of it.

June 19, 1996|MARY SUSAN HERCZOG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On Girls' Day Out, most women indulge in activities like tea and manicures. My friends and I? We go for mammograms.

Let me back up.

A few months ago, I discovered a couple of breast lumps. Although my nurse practitioner felt strongly that they were nothing more than cysts, she wanted me to have a mammogram to be sure and she urged me not to become complacent and put it off.

I put it off.

Some time later, at a party, my friend An and I were admiring Julie's new pink bra. We do things like that. Bras led to breasts, which led to my cysts and now overdue mammogram.

"Oh," sighed Julie, "I have lots of those cysts and my doctor told me to get a mammogram, but I've been putting it off."

"Oh," moaned An, "I'm about to be 40, and that's when you are supposed to start having them regularly, but I've been putting it off."

Light bulb.

"Why don't we all go together?" I suggested.

You see, mammograms are a big mystery, especially if you've never had one. They're scary and they hurt, or so we've heard. What better way to tackle this brand-new experience? Everything is more fun in a group, and we can all hold each other's hands.

The plan immediately appealed to our mutual sense of the absurd. And after a bit of bewilderment on the part of the American Breast Center, I made three appointments.

The big day arrived, and only Julie bailed out at the last minute; her doctor didn't want her to have a mammogram just yet. Lucky dog, we grumbled, a little disappointed at the breakdown of our plan. But wait, she would still have to get one in the near future! "We'll go with you then, anyway," we promised.

Once at the Pasadena branch of the breast center, the family history form-filling process took just long enough for us to amuse the people behind the desk.

"Will you hold our hands?" I asked one technician.

"No," she replied, "because we can't stretch across the room from the switch."

Meanwhile, An, who designs her own jewelry, was working the room, arranging for another employee to buy some of her homemade earrings.

Next, An and I were separated as we were sent off with Silvana and Susan, respectively, our techs for the morning. Susan took me to a small cubicle, where she asked questions about the problem areas in my breasts, gently touching the spots I indicated. She was pleased I wasn't bashful.

"That can be a big problem," she said.

We had exchanged shirts and bras for paper robes. We had been told not to wear deodorant--it shows up as confusing white marks on the film. We also had to remove all jewelry, although An got to keep in her tummy ring.

Then Susan led me to the room where It awaited. I smiled at the sign on the wall: We Compress Because We Care. Aaaaw! Susan helped me place my right breast on the tray and pulled it out as far as it would go--not very, but Susan was good at stretching.

Then another section was lowered, encasing my breast in a vise between two plates. The upper part continued to press down. And down. And down. My breast squished down and out like Play-doh. Just as it got uncomfortable, I called out, "That's enough!" and it stopped. It didn't hurt, but was right on the border between uncomfortable and painful. I held my breath as instructed, the shot was snapped and my breast released. On to the left one!

I clutched my breast, more or less unconsciously pushing it back into shape. An had the same reaction. Both techs reassured us, "Don't worry, they fluff back up." Well, you do wonder.

Next was the side view, a more uncomfortable body position, lying on your side, arm over head, breast stretched out and once again, pressed down as flat as it can go. This felt somewhat better than the top-to-bottom compression.

And in all, it took less than 10 minutes. An and I agreed it wasn't a big deal.

While waiting as the films developed, we killed time visiting with other patient-free techs. Everyone gathered around to peer at the films, which are essentially X-rays. We agreed it's always a little strange to view your innards. The techs can't diagnose, but they can see potential problem areas, and go back for further shots on the spot. To my dismay, my lumps didn't show up on the films, which apparently isn't uncommon (mammography isn't infallible, which hardly seems fair), and I would probably have to get an ultrasound.

The films themselves were an interesting mystery; a surreal landscape of light and dark patches, swirled together. You know those ultrasound photos of fetuses, where only experts and the parents can tell a leg from a head? Same thing.

Immediately, Susan spotted a tiny white dot on mine she wanted the radiologist to look at. I saw nothing. An thought a large white spot was her nipple, but it was just a large white spot. We learned that everyone has her own unique pattern and that a baseline (your first mammogram) documents what your normal, healthy breast looks like. All our future mammograms will be compared to these.

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