by Sarah Bedford

Tests! We fear them in school, the very word can send shivers down the spine when connected with any subject from math to driving. The possibility of failure always looms somewhere out there. But the dreaded 'test' seems to forever be a part of our existence. When suggested during a physical we long for the day when knowledge of facts and figures were all we needed to guarantee success. It is difficult to put a positive spin on the word. I've yet to meet anyone who looks forward to blood work, or an ECG. Nobody goes into a lab jumping for joy at the prospect of confirming all is well. That little bit of fear in each of us, sort of surfaces as we walk in, take a number and wait . for our number to come up!

Having reached middle age - okay just past middle age, I've noticed too that some tests take on a certain 'mystique' all their own, mammograms for example. Most women can skim through their twenties without really giving a great deal of attention to some of the more extreme measures used for breast examination. A few minutes of self poking and prodding in the shower each month seems to be enough. Ah - but we do hear stories about the 'machine!' As we get older, closer to our encounter with the gizmo we hear more horror tales and we start paying a little more attention. Maybe that's why 'sagging' starts to happen? It isn't gravity They're depressed! I've noticed too that those women who survive the 'press' like to share their stories much the same as vets or fishing enthusiasts relate tales of triumph and glory.

"Yup, they flattened mine out like pancakes - ooooh did it hurt!"

"Well, you know when I went, mine wouldn't fit on the machine so they had to pull and pull and tug, just to get it on the plate."

Plate? They use plates? What kind of plates?

"Oh yes - and it is so cold! How do they expect a person to relax with all of that pulling and pressing? Oh the pressing! Oh the cold!!!"


"You think your experience was bad. Wait until you hear this ..."

"Well when I went they had to try six times because they just couldn't get mine in the right position. It was awful, felt like they were ripping the poor dears off. It hurt for weeks and weeks afterwards."

"At least you have something to put on the plate - I wish I'd been so lucky. Trust me, you don't want to know what they did to me."

"When my friend went, the technician was a man - can you imagine?"

A man? Can they do that?

"When my sister went, they had it set at the wrong level - she still has marks underneath her right one - scars."


"A woman from the place I worked actually got trapped in it for 20 minutes! It malfunctioned and they couldn't get her out. I don't know

how anybody could stand the pain for so long."


"My mother says it is the most painful experience she's had since childbirth."

"You can bet if men had to go through this, it wouldn't be quite so painful."

"They had to do each of mine four times just to get a good picture of all of them. Hurt like the dickens. I was sure they were severing them from my chest."

And so on and so on, each tale shared just a little more painful, a little more humiliating a little more grusome. I began walking about with my arms folded in front of them.

There is something about the day you go for your first post-fifty physical that makes you very aware life will never be the same again. For starters apparently there are more places on your body requiring inspection. There are more blood tests to run, more scans to be done, more bottles to fill, charts to complete, samples to give - and oh yes . the MAMMOGRAM!!! Our version of 'High Noon.'

Dr. Peters, a delightful, very clever, skilled physician, usually just stares blankly at me, completely un-amused each time I try to talk her out of sending me for tests. My pleas, stall tactics never work. So there I was, sitting in a crowded waiting room of a Lake Street lab, waiting for my turn. In true 'Cathy' fashion, I'd tried to prepare for this day - practicing at home with my hands as the plate, wondering how big the thing might really be, how big the plates really were, what mine would look like after the fact. Was that the real reason some women well over 50 seem to have more of a 'gravity issue? Year after year of mammograms?

As I sat there I didn't hear screaming. Ah! Must be in a soundproof room! Smart! After about 30 minutes of trying appear calm, serene, and not the least bit worried, a technician called my name. The booth in which I was to change was just big enough to fit . me! But they had managed to work in a clothes hook and a magazine rack. It wasn't designed for sitting - that would be done in another narrow corridor just outside 'the room' with the dreaded 'machine.' You can't really get all that comfortable sitting around with one of those little blue gowns on, hard to concentrate on reading material, no one is interested in passing the time of day - a bit awkward, sitting there, watching technicians passing by, others just like you trying to look somewhat respectable in those flimsy blue gowns.

'English daughters' (at least that was the story in my home) are raised knowing screaming, loss of composure, wincing, any other signs of discomfort, lack of control or inability to endure pain are completely unacceptable behaviour. Suck it up, stiff upper lip and never, ever, under any circumstance, no matter how painful - cry in public. I would go into that room, face that machine, do what was required and not so much as blink. I would hold my head up high, no matter how cold the plates, how severe the squeeze, how great the pain, and when it was all over, I would walk back to that change cubicle, with nary a grimace, even if it meant from that day forward I'd be looking for bras with extra long strap extensions.

It seemed to be the right height, wasn't quite as cold as I had anticipated, and yes there was some discomfort . a little more, a little more . a little -eeeee--- don't wince, don't ....

Little did I know that it wasn't just my breasts being tested! There I was locked into this contraption when I heard "Ann c'mere. Look at this." "Wow, we've never gotten it this far before? Are you sure you're alright dear?"

Dear! I'm a dear? Isn't it bad enough I'm here trapped in machine wearing only a flimsy smock and ankle socks! Now I'm a 'dear' - I glanced at the techs one more time - smiling of course - and it hit me just how young they seemed. Really, really young. To them I was in the dear category. [Sigh] "Yes, yes" I said - "no problem. Is everything okay?"

Apparently my slight smile was enough of an approval to prompt them to go reach a new 'flatness' goal. It ended, they were delighted, I got a gold star on my chart and apparently have bragging rights over how low I can go on a mammogram. Truth be told, I don't think the physical pain even came close to the mental anguish of not knowing the results then and there. The agony of wondering if this test will be the first step, in a life altering, life ending experience. The waiting, the keeping all of the 'what ifs' at bay. Searching for the courage to deal with a possible call back - holding an appointment card in your hand and slowly reading

'surgeon' after the name. And weeks later sitting in the surgeon's waiting room, watching women come and go, some obviously in the throes of dealing with cancer, some jubilant with whatever news they'd received. I think it is in those minutes, that brief time span, which seems endless, where the real pain of a mammogram is endured. And when you get a clean bill of health, when the tiny spots are identified as your average run of the mill non-threatening cysts, is perhaps the one moment in your life, when you feel like kissing the blinkin' machine, and are grateful there is such a thing as a mammogram - no matter how long or flat your breasts may be.

Rate this submission


You must be logged in to rate submissions

Loading Comments