Counting On My Misconceptions

It was an abacus. Sitting in my hospital-issued half gown, I stared at the breast cancer risk assessment hanging on the wall across from me. Next to it was a rack of magazines: Reader’s Digest, Oprah, Good Housekeeping… I felt out of place. Despite the fact that there were two chairs next to the small changing room, I was the only one actually waiting. I had sat there for several minutes, smiling as women almost twice my age came and went through the small frosted office area. Most of them gave me a puzzled look, like I was an outsider invading a secret area reserved only for the 40+ Club. But there I was, the special young guest of the day, staring at a rack of unappealing and outdated magazines and an abacus: Are You at Risk For Breast Cancer?

Of course, this isn’t breast cancer, I told myself. I’d had off and on nipple discharge for almost a year, and about 2 months ago, I had felt something on the outer side of my left breast. But it wasn’t cancer; and it wasn’t a lump. It was more just a hardening. Probably an infection.

Do you have a personal or family history of breast or ovarian cancer?

I felt a little annoyed to have to go through all this just to get an antibiotic prescription. I’d been told that they probably wouldn’t even do a mammogram. I’d just had an ultrasound on my breast and had been shuffled downstairs for the mammogram I didn’t know I was having. I had heard how uncomfortable mammograms could be, and the way they squished your boobs. I’m small-chested, so there’s not a whole lot there to even squish; what did they think they were going to be able to even see anyway?

Are you over age 40?

But it’s just as well that they’re making sure it’s not something more serious. Plus, I’ve got good insurance now, so what do I care? I paid my $10 copay. At least if I do this now, once I hit 40 I’ll already know what it’s all about.

Did your menstrual cycle begin before age 12?

Two technicians stepped out of a back room. They didn’t seem surprised to see me, and took me back into the room. Together they orchestrated my arms and breasts like trained puppeteers. I complied, and even let them squish a little too hard… just to be a good patient.

Are you childless or gave birth after age 30?

Turn here. Squish. Go here. Squish. Don’t move. Squish. Hold your breath. Squish. Is that too tight? Squish. They asked me to sit back in front of the abacus. The technicians needed to show the doctor the mammogram pictures, and he might need to come down to take more images.

Are you overweight?

So I sat in the chair, waiting, watching the older women come and go, until finally a nurse stopped by and told me I could change out of the half uniform and back into my bra and t-shirt. I’d taken four hours off work. I wanted to go home soon and take advantage of the rest of my day off.

Do you drink alcohol?

They ask me if I can wait some more right here. I can’t be nervous. I only scored 1 on the Abacus, and that’s only because I enjoy alcohol… but so do a lot of women. That doesn’t mean I have cancer. At least this time I get to be fully clothed while I wait, and at least there are better magazines in this waiting area. Another nurse calls my name. I have a personal escort back up to radiology to meet with the doctor.

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