Mammograms: A Love-Hate Relationship

One woman's experience with her oncologist when the time came around for a mammogram.

Mammogram. I have a love-hate relationship with the word. Upon hearing the word, first thoughts connote pain, prevention or procedure. Mammograms are necessary and useful for the early detection of breast cancer. In 1997, at the age of 40, I had my initial mammogram. Following my doctor’s advice, I received a diagnostic mammogram. Without a family history of breast cancer, I hadn’t considered the need for a mammogram, but decided to proceed with the test. It was embarrassing to bare my breasts to a complete stranger. It was uncomfortable to have my breasts flattened and squeezed. After the procedure, I never wanted to have another mammogram, but as annual reminders came, I continued to comply. In 2014, 17 years after my first mammogram, I received my diagnosis - invasive ductal carcinoma. The cancer lit up the technician’s screen distinctively. I was thankful I’d been proactive.

Fast forward to 2016, (two years after having had both of my breasts removed), I am sitting in my oncologist’s office. He’s seen me religiously for the past couple of years, so you can imagine my surprise when he asks, “Have you had any recent breast changes? When was your last mammogram?” My jaw nearly hit the floor and in my head I was thinking, “Really?!” I looked up at the doctor with my big, doe brown eyes, and whispered, “Doc, how can I have any breast changes when I don’t have any breasts? How can I have a mammogram when I have nothing to flatten or squeeze?” He looked back at the computer screen and was silent. The awkwardness of the moment filled the room. Rolling his stool toward me, he apologized. I acquiesced. Shouldn’t my oncologist pay attention to my chart? For heaven’s sake, I was sitting in front of him without prostheses. A perfectly flat chest should indicate bilateral mastectomies to a well-trained physician, shouldn’t it? After all, this was his field of expertise.

We talked a few minutes to ease the tension and I questioned him on mentioning the mammogram. He pointed to the computer screen and said, “Because there’s a prompt in our program to ask about mammograms.” When I suggested they revise their program to recognize patients with bilateral mastectomies, he grinned. “Yes, I guess we need to do that.”

After leaving his office, I went home exasperated. Several days later, I received a notification from the oncology office. As I opened the email, I was dumbfounded. There in black and white was a stark reminder to set up an appointment for a mammogram. Unreal! I guess I’ll just have to learn to let it go and ignore the notices. At least they’re reminding women to get their boobs checked, even if they don’t have any.