Amigas: On Mammograms and the Power of Female Friendship

As I sat in a hospital waiting room wearing a little pink poncho, I experienced something that reminded me of the powerful bond that develops quickly between women.

DENVER – Allow me to get something off my chest. Every year I cringe when my doctor schedules my annual mammogram. I dread the process so much that I skipped it altogether last year. I know. Big baby, right? Yet, only a woman (or man) who has undergone this potentially lifesaving screening could understand the discomfort, indignity and confusion of a process that literally entails smashing your chichis (a.k.a. tatas, boobs, knockers, hooters, gazumbas, tits, mammaries, tetas) in a large vise as you stand on your tiptoes and hold your breath so the technician can get a good X-ray. Here’s the drill: First, the well-meaning tech smashes your breast from the top, then she smashes it sideways (and includes some chest muscle for good measure) to ensure that the radiologist gets a complete view of all of your breast tissue.

For years, women have asked, “Is this really the only way to check us for tumors, cysts and other breast abnormalities?” From boardrooms to factory floors, women have avowed vociferously, “Only a man could have invented that machine!” Or, ”Imagine men inventing a similar contraption to test for testicular cancer.” Then we kvetch about who experiences more discomfort, small-breasted women or the more well-endowed gals among us.

Along with a pap smear, health care providers recommend that women over the age of 40 include a mammogram as part of their annual “well-woman check-up.” We’ve become so immersed in the cult of the breast that most of us dutifully conduct self examinations in the shower, running our hands in a circular motion over each breast to check for lumps, bumps or anything else that does not feel quite right. We invite our friends to be our “buddies,” and remind each other to check ourselves and to undergo annual mammograms. We wear T-shirts calling on the world to “Save the tatas.” Indeed, the pink movement has become one of the most successful and legendary marketing campaigns in history. It has been so successful at raising awareness that many people believe breast cancer is the No. 1 health concern for women. In fact, heart disease kills more American women each year than all of the cancers combined.

~  The pink movement has become one of the most successful and legendary marketing campaigns in history. ~

Let me get to the point. Breast cancer does not run in my family. My relatives tend to die ancianos, or of very old age in their 80s, 90s and beyond. The only known relative on either side of my family to have experienced breast cancer was my maternal great-aunt Maclovia Montoya, who before she died a few years ago over the age of 100 was Colorado’s oldest living breast cancer survivor.

I’ve never really had to think about breast cancer – until now.

Recently, as I sat in a hospital waiting room wearing a little pink poncho, I experienced something that reminded me of the powerful bond that develops quickly between women, especially when we are about to receive good or bad news about our health. Altogether, there were about eight of us in that waiting room. The breast center was busy, and there was a backlog of patients, but the anticipation of the breast-smashing mammogram was enough to break down any ethnic, language, geographic, national or socioeconomic barriers among us. On the surface, we were six middle-aged white women (including one in a wheelchair), two middle-aged black women (including a woman who seemed like an African immigrant), a young white woman, a blue-eyed, middle-aged Spaniard and one middle-aged U.S.-born Latina (me).

~ The breast center was busy, and there was a backlog of patients, but the anticipation of the breast-smashing mammogram was enough to break down any ethnic, language, geographic, national or socioeconomic barriers among us. ~

To pass the time, we began telling our stories one by one. The thin, gray-haired woman in the corner was a retired UCLA college professor who now devoted her days to tennis. The petite lady next to her regaled us with funny stories about her father, and how he had maintained his independence well into old age. A woman with short dark hair revealed she had traveled 300 miles from northern Wyoming to have Colorado oncologists check the lumps in her breasts. The woman in the wheelchair amused us with stories about her grandchildren, who were growing up “half Samoan and half white” on the dusty plains east of Denver.

During a lull in the conversation, I turned to the Spanish woman and asked “¿De dónde es Ud.?” Turns out she was from Barcelona, España, but I detected a bit of an Argentine inflection in her speech. “Good ear,” she told me in Spanish. “I lived in Buenos Aires for several years. And you?” I told her I was from Pueblo, Colo., but had lived in Venezuela for a decade and had learned Spanish there. To be polite to the others, I quickly translated the conversation into English.

The woman sitting to my right, who had been quietly reading a magazine, suddenly looked at me and said, “I grew up in southern Colorado, too, in Salida. I’m a sixth-generation Coloradan.” She said she had been traveling to Denver over the past year to receive chemo therapy and other breast cancer treatments. We discovered that we shared the same first name and a love of Colorado history. We quibbled over the proper pronunciation of Salida and Buena Vista, and discussed how sad it was that Colorado history remained largely unknown to the state’s newcomers.

As she talked, I began to realize that she was quite beautiful despite the bald head beneath her baseball cap. Hidden beneath the brim of her cap were soulful, deep blue eyes set in a warm-peach complexion and a mauve-stained mouth. Sitting beside her, I felt a dignified resolve and a blazing courage that electrified the air around us. I wanted to get to know her better, but we didn’t have much time. What I learned, though, will stay with me forever.

Without warning, a nurse summoned my new amiga and escorted her back to mammography. Soon, my friend returned with tears glittering in her expressive eyes. “They could not find the tumor! It’s gone!” she said excitedly as she stood before my chair. I stood and we embraced tightly before she spun around to get dressed, and to share the  good news with her husband. Just like that, she vanished. I felt an adrenalin rush of excitement and happiness for a woman I had just met, and felt tears in my own eyes. Then I heard my name and smiled at the others as I walked back to mammography.

Somehow, I sensed it might not hurt as much this time.

-30-

Deborah Méndez-Wilson (née Quintana-Vigil) is a fifth-generation Coloradan whose mestizo family roots in the United States date back to the early-1700s in Spanish colonial New Mexico. A graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Méndez-Wilson spent nearly 20 years working in professional journalism for news organizations such as the Associated PressReutersWireless Week and others. She also has worked as a public relations professional in state government, health care and higher education. She lives in Highlands Ranch, Colo., with her husband and son, and also shares her life with her adult daughter and grandson.

 

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