Disclaimer: I'll be discussing subject matter that some may find offensive since it has to do with specific tests and examinations involving female body parts, and a retrospective into the female menstrual cycle. Click off now because I'm going into "TMI" land. Remember, you've been warned.
With everything going on in my personal life, I had pushed off getting my annual pap smear and mammogram. I received letters from Ochsner reminding me it had been thirteen months since I had made an appointment. It was more a time issue than anything else, but I knew it was important to do.
My first encounter with an ob/gyn was when I was 13 years old. I started my monthly cycle in April 1980. Nothing Mom could tell me or the "starter kit" from Stayfree could prepare me for what I would experience. I remember cramps so bad I wanted to put my kneecaps into my eye sockets. What prompted the visit was I almost fainted and experience two cycles in a month. If you thought the onset of turning into a woman for a 12-year old girl was bad enough, it was raised to level orange by going to the doctor.
He was an elderly doctor with many years of experience. He had several daughters, one was his nurse, and I was assured he had seen patients as young as eight. In retrospect, even if Mom had explained every section of the exam, it would have been too much for me to process. All I remember was him putting on a latex glove, covering his hand with a tube of goo, and at the first feeling of "something wrong", I screamed my head off. I was long. I was loud. I drowned out my mother telling me to be quiet and still, the nurse trying to keep me on the table, and the only thing I heard from the doctor as he left was, "I can't take this!" To this day, I firmly believed I cleared the waiting room. He prescribed iron pills and I never went back. I went to a "normal" routine of every 25 days riding the crimson wave.
At the beginning of college, I experienced another two-timer, and went to another male doctor. He was younger and I was older. I didn't scream, but I was tense, nervous, and he suggested I have an ultrasound. I recall that I had to drink about 64 ounces of fluid and my bladder can hold about 60 ounces before I need to urinate. I went to the exam and had the warm gel and cold ball bearing mouse on my abdomen. Every place she pushed and toggled, I thought I would burst. Thank goodness the architect of the building put a ladies room next to the exam room. No problem with the scan: normal.
The next year my doctor left and his replacement (another man) said I would have a physical examination without the ultrasound. When I explained the circumstances about getting the ultrasound, his response was, "we have instruments to assist with that". Never went back. Never had another exam until two years ago.
I turned 39 and was having regular cycles. "Regular" is defined as irritability seven days before I surf. Also part of the package is bloating, wanting to eat 24/7 and feeling like I look like Jabba the Hut's girlfriend. Then the pain, which lasts for 8 hours and the flow, which is heavy for two days and tapers off for three. "I feel pain like being hit by a semi and bloated like roadkill on a highway", is the best way to sum it up. I've never had the inkling of having a baby. As far as I'm concerned, they could take my uterus out, fill it full of candy, and use it as a pinata. No, my decision to get the pap smear and the mammogram was simple: if they found something, I want it to be found early. I started with the simplest solution: get a female ob/gyn.
As I've been told, women who've had children don't have a problem with the exam because once you've gone through childbirth, an exam is nothing. Considering I've never given birth, I knew there would be discomfort. My doctor is wonderful. She understood, made me comfortable, answered my questions, and took her time. I still don't know why a speculum is shaped like a shoehorn, but I conclude the inventor was male.
My first mammogram was more awkward than painful. You never fully undress and the gown is open long enough to expose a breast to the platform of the testing machine. Part of the awkwardness is the fact I don't have many mammary glands. The tech had to coax what I had onto the glass plate, like somehow pooling it all in the middle would make it bigger. Hand around the machine, head back, staring up and somehow not move with a machine feeling me up. And then the other breast. And side views. I was told afterwards that some women get called back because it comes up abnormal and "don't put yourself six feet under if you get a call back". It was fine.
This year I waited to get my mammogram until I talked with my doctor. There had been a new recommendation from a task force about women over 40 only needing mammograms every few years instead of every year. She explained that the task force was not in league with the AMA or the gynecological societies she belonged. She felt the task force's recommendations would do more harm than good because the insurance companies could re-evaluate their stance on paying for mammograms every year for women in their 40s and women won't pay out-of-pocket for them. Money would take precedence over cancer prevention. Another consideration is that young women have abnormal mammograms, go through biopsies, and some cases prove negative. These women "were scared needlessly". My doctor was unapologetic.
"I'd rather scare nine young women than miss the one with cancer!" But she reasoned if it was painful for me or if my insurance didn't cover it, I could go every other year. I told her getting one every year was not a problem, even if I had to pay for it myself.
My doctor just returned from maternity leave and the subject of men came up. I said if men had to have the babies, the world's population would decrease by two-thirds.
"My husband didn't understand," she said. "It's like taking a backpack and putting 30 pounds worth of bricks on your back. Then carry it everywhere and try to do everything with it. I had to examine patients with all that extra weight." Then she went on about how she has multiple bags to carry along with the baby and her husband, at times, will go on without her until she calls him back and makes him take something. One fight began when he had the nerve to try and put his laptop and camera in one of the bags she carried along with the baby.
"If men had to have babies," she concluded, "they'd be grown in a lab, and bought and sold on eBay!"
A week after my mammogram, I received an email from my friend Gary. I hadn't heard from him since my father took ill. The email was about Brenda, his girlfriend and roommate (now his wife) who was battling breast cancer. It had mets that went into her spine. She was recovering, but it had been hard on both of them. He invited everyone to St. Baldricks, an event where recipients volunteer to have their heads shaved to raise money to battle pediatric cancer. After I read the email, I pulled out the card to call and find out the results of my mammogram. I left a message on the recorder.
On Brenda's blog, she talked about how she had lost weight from running and her better health saved her life. It helped her stamina with the chemo, which she'll finish in a few weeks. Gary reasoned that his hair will grow back around the same time Brenda's will.
Brenda also pointed out that she had good health check-ups for years and took them for granted. Shortly after seeing them at St. Baldricks, I received letters from my doctor and the breast center: this year's pap smear and mammogram are normal. No, I won't take those for granted again, either. Life's too short and health's too important.
Get checked yearly and take steps to ensure you'll be around for awhile. If you won't do it for yourself, do it for the people who love you.
Travel light and take care.