A Mammo Inquistion!

By Susan S. Turner

            My mother lived with breast cancer for 14 years through two mastectomies and repeated chemotherapy and radiation.  When I found my lump I was stunned, though I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.  But I was immobilized.  It took me several days before I told my partner who had to push me into action.  I got the referral from my doctor and scheduled a mammogram.  The radiology practice fit me into their schedule that same week but I still had several days to sit with the unknown.
            Finally the day of the appointment came.  I am waiting in the reception area for an hour when finally the x-ray technician calls my name.  As I follow her in my usual sporty wheelchair to the exam room, she is chatty and asks, “How did you get here today?”  I respond, “I took the thruway to exit 133.  The office was easy to find.”  Now she is wide eyed and exclaims, “You mean you drove yourself here? How can you drive?”  Used to these questions, I answer politely about cars with hand controls. 

              Now she has me strip to the waist and begins to squish my breast onto the mammogram “torture machine,” as I call it.  Then she asks, “Do you live alone?”  I ignore her question.  I’m trying to tell her where I feel the lump, while she continues, “Do you work?”  These are the questions that strangers often ask people with physical disabilities.  I always wonder if their questions are just to satisfy their curiosity; or maybe it’s their anxiety that it could happen to them.  Or, are they glad it is me who has the disability, and not them?
            Finally the technician comes to the big question: “What happened to you?”  At the least, it is not the question I sometimes get, “What’s wrong with you?” Then I always want to say, “Nothing is wrong with me. What’s wrong with YOU that you have no manners?” I answer the technician curtly, “I had polio when I was a child.  Now may I get dressed?”   She tells me not to get dressed but to sit in the dressing room waiting area while the radiologist looks at the mammogram and decides on the next step.
            Again I wait.  I shiver in my paper gown.  I am remembering how my mother had continued to work throughout her chemotherapy.  She explained to me, “I can be nauseous at work as easily as I can be nauseous at home.”  But she was a bookkeeper and had an office by herself.  I am a counselor and deal with a client every hour.  I am self-employed and need to work.  But my mother did it.  I can do it!  And maybe there is the lesson to be learned here – to move outside myself, to move beyond nausea; to focus on other, not on self.
            I remember her salt and pepper colored hair.  She was more upset when it grew back in pure white than she was when her hair first began falling out.  She did have a wig while she was waiting for her hair to grow back in.  I promise myself that if I need a wig I will buy a long luxurious blond one.
            Then I chastise myself for being melodramatic by thinking the worst.  It is probably only a cyst and there is nothing wrong.  I take a deep breath and relax as I leaf through a People magazine.
            In what seems like an hour but is only 15 minutes, I hear the door to the waiting room squeak open.  I look up.  In walks the x-ray technician, the doctor (the name is on his white coat), and a nurse.  “Why a nurse?” I say to myself, “It must be bad news and they think I may fall apart.”  I wrap the paper gown around me more tightly and I hear it rip in the back. 
            The three of them stride over to me and look down.  The young doctor is pale and tall and wears a white lab coat that is too small for his body builder shoulders. The room is totally quiet except for him tapping his forefinger on the file folder he is holding. The nurse and technician hover right behind him almost knocking into the waiting room table covered with glossy magazines.  In a professorial voice he begins, “The tech tells me you had polio.  I never met anyone with polio.” I am speechless.  The nurse and technician move in closer. He continues, “Didn’t you get the vaccine?”  I start to shake, and say, “What?  What?” as my breathing grows rapid.  Now he speaks louder, “Didn’t you get the vaccine?”  I am suddenly aware that I am not cold anymore.  The bright fluorescent ceiling lights seem to burn into me.  I respond in a staccato voice, “I got it in 1952; the vaccine came out in 1954.”   I hold back an angry reply, feeling again like the little girl who was always afraid of the doctor.  The girl always answers people’s questions so that they can learn. Again I am the child who wanted to please.  Now, as then, I want to scream. 
            I sit up tall, pulling back my shoulders not caring what happens to the paper gown, and suddenly feel a breeze of cool air.  Meeting the doctor’s eyes and in a loud and firm voice I announce, “Stop with the questions!  What about my breast?”
            “Oh, that,” he responds, “It looks like nothing to worry about.  See you back in 6 months.”

About the Author:
Susan Turner has been a clinical social worker in private practice in New Mexico for the past 12 years. She primarily works with women with chronic illness as well as gay, lesbian and transgender clients.  Her previous adult life was spent in New York working as a social worker in the field of HIV/AIDS and teaching at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service.  Growing up in Indiana, she contracted polio in 1952, during the epidemic in the Midwest.  She transitioned from long leg braces and crutches to a motorized wheelchair ten years ago when post-polio syndrome set in.  She is a mother to two children and a grandmother to three. She started and leads a group called “Professional Women with Disabilities” which is a group of fabulous women who are smart and supportive. 
Her philosophy is a quote by Josh Shipp "You either get bitter or you get better.  It's that simple.  You either take what has been dealt to you and allow it to make you a better person, or you allow it to tear you down.  The choice does not belong to fate, it belongs to you."

For more information on breast cancer, please visit:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/breast-cancer-screening.html 
Center for Research for Women with Disabilities at Baylor College of Medicine https://www.bcm.edu/research/centers/research-on-women-with-disabilities/topics/sexuality-and-reproductive-health/breast-cancer
mobileWOMEN Article: "Breast Health: Be Informed, Be Resourceful and Be Persistent" http://www.mobilewomen.org/2009/05/breast-health-be-informed-be.html

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