Copyright © 1998 Henrietta W. Hay
The Joy of Mammograms?
September 11, 1998
Some things come but once a year and we look forward to them with
varying degrees of enthusiasm: Christmas, Thanksgiving, our kids'
birthdays. And then there is one thing that comes once a year which is
so serious and important, but at the same time so ridiculous in its
procedure that we have to laugh at it. It comes, or should come
eventually, to 51% of the population -- the annual mammogram.
This is not easy for a woman of my generation to write about. In my
youth the word "breast" was never spoken aloud, at least not in front
of impressionable children. I think it was pictures of naked natives
in the National Geographic that finally tipped me off.
Another definite no no was "cancer." For reasons which I have never
figured out, cancer was a shameful secret then. One great sign of
progress in the late 20th century is that we can say the word out
loud. It is still a horrible disease, but we have opened it up to the
light of publicity and public discussion. With millions of dollars
being spent on research and early detection, there is now great hope for
Language changes through the years. A great deal of that which was
forbidden in my youth is now generally accepted. After all, now that
oral sex is common dinner table conversation in Washington, we can
surely talk about breast cancer.
This week I had my annual mammogram. There is nothing like having a
mammogram to remind you that dignity is not an essential part of life,
as though women didn't already know that. Half of me is scared, of
course. What if? But the other half of me is laughing myself silly at
the ridiculous aspect of it.
It is far easier on the patient today than it was when I had my first
one a number of years ago. Then mammograms were in their infancy and
were performed in the
x-ray department of St. Mary's Hospital. We sat around in a tiny
waiting room in our little hospital skivvies, keeping company with men,
women and children waiting to have broken bones x-rayed.
Today mammograms are done in a very dignified, calm, women-only
The mammographic technologists are not only technically skilled, but
wonderfully tactful and sensitive. They seem to enjoy answering my
silly questions. I always ask about women's reactions. They tell me
that in general the young women complain more but the older women are
more self-conscious. No wonder. Look at how we were raised.
Fortunately by now most of us have learned to laugh at ourselves. This
year I was curious about mammography for the women who have implants.
The technologist told me that the implants do not prevent finding
abnormalities, but they sometimes make it harder to get accurate x-rays.
There is nothing mysterious about the procedure. It has even been
demonstrated on television in numerous ads urging women to have their
Funny, undignified and frightening though they may be, mammograms have
saved uncounted lives and are a vital part of medical care for women.
The experts are arguing about it (experts argue about everything) but
the general recommendation is that a woman should have a baseline
mammogram at 35 to 39, then every one or two years. After 50 it is
recommended that we have one every year.
The diagnosis of breast cancer is no longer an automatic death
sentence. Survivors are going about their lives and lots of them can
still joke. The late Erma Bombeck, who had lost a breast to cancer,
told what I think is the funniest story of them all. A woman who had
not yet gotten her prosthesis was flying to see her daughter. She
stuffed her bra with cotton, but decided to weight it down with several
silver dollars. The metal detector at the airport went crazy and she
had to be led away and searched to prove her bizarre story. I suspect
the airport officials had to be led away somewhere, too after that one.
So don't forget your next mammogram. If it's negative, you've had your
laugh for the day. If it's not, it may have just saved your life.