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The Best Way to Honor a Friend With Breast Cancer

Who knew a mammogram could be so, uh, entertaining? Mary Kay Fleming, who has a special reason to get the most detailed technology possible.
Editor’s Note: Mary Kay Fleming has written this essay as a tribute to a very close friend who recently had breast cancer surgery. “My friend delayed mammograms for a few years,” Fleming says, “and her breasts promptly tried to kill her. Thankfully, she was diagnosed and treated just in time to save her life … but not her breasts. I want to be part of an effort to encourage other women to get routine screenings, especially during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.”

Every woman of a certain age dreads the cancer screening that involves steamrolling her delicates. But a few years ago, my annual exam introduced the latest technology: the 3-D mammogram. 3-D? Dear God, I prayed, do not let this involve a theater full of people wearing those ridiculous glasses.

The technician did not explain the medical benefits of the third dimension but she was quick to point out the most salient features for consumers. The 3-D mammogram would cost $60 more, insurance would not pay for it, and I’d have to hold my breath a lot more. Where do I sign up? It’s not every day I get to pay extra to faint from a standing position with my breasts caught in a vise.

Read More: She Always Wanted Bigger Boobs, Then Learned to Be Careful What She Wished For

What is a 3D Mammogram?

The process started as usual—I locked up my belongings, along with any hope of modesty, in a small cabinet and cinched myself into a waist-length hospital gown that opened in the front. The technician, Amy, asked me to verify my name and birthdate, presumably because rogue women regularly break into these facilities to score extra time with their breasts trapped between plexiglass plates.

Just when I thought one of the girls might explode, she let up.

Pleasantries dispensed with, Amy gathered up every molecule of breast tissue plus anything else she could yank from my chest wall, armpit, and bat wings. I watched her gaze drift upward toward my jowls and quickly craned my neck to discourage her from grabbing any other loose skin. If only she could have pinched everything up from my muffin top and not returned it, I would have left her a handsome tip. But, alas, she wasn’t up to the heft.

Next, Amy used a foot pedal to compress each breast beyond my wildest imaginings. Just when I thought one of the girls might explode, she let up, only to bear down on a manual crank for extra flattening. Stepping away to push the button for imaging, Amy offered a stern, “Don’t move.” Thanks for the reminder, Amy, I was just about to rip the machine out of the floor and sprint off with it.

In addition to not moving, I was directed to hold my breath for each image. Amy always seemed to utter those words immediately after I’d exhaled. But fear of amputation was amazingly effective at preventing me from passing out.

Into the Third Dimension

Fear of amputation was amazingly effective at preventing me from passing out.

After a few more dizzying moments without oxygen, I began to find the whole idea of 3-D breast imaging pretty amusing. After all, mammography takes a three-dimensional body part and smashes it into a plane. Were the inventors of 3-D technology pulling our legs (we wish!) by inventing something to visualize the compressed two-dimensional breast back into its original three dimensions? I’m fairly certain a savvy engineer could have invented a machine to just look down our shirts.

Temporary discomfort and immodesty aside, mammography is still considered the gold standard for detection of breast cancer—the second most common type of cancer among US women (after skin cancer). Like full-body skin checks and colonoscopies, regular mammograms save lives. So, Ladies, step lively and line up two abreast (get it?) for your annual squeeze. And don’t forget to inhale!

Read More: Breast Cancer Is More Devastating for Black Women. Here’s What One Survivor Is Doing About It

By Mary Kay Fleming


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