Sunday, December 28, 2014

Curiosity, Mars and Mammograms

By Mahlia Lindquist

I read that NASA's Curiosity recently discovered evidence of life on Mars. Wow! Extraterrestrials on Mars are even more monumental than a bald British Royal and his hat wearing wife’s first visit to NYCYet, I scanned the article with only mild interest.

 I want to be interested in this astounding discovery. We are talking cosmic consequences here. Perhaps a review of mistakes made when Columbus “discovered” America is in order.  A discussion of the precautionary principal and whether it should be considered in the context of Mars. Or at least, a brief pause to marvel over the spectacular scientific achievements that have allowed man to go from cave dweller to Mars tourist in just 200,000 years.

But the truth is, the prospect of life on Mars did not rock my world. The only topic I am even less curious about is British royalty.

While I can live with my indifference to Prince William and Kate, my indifference to life on Mars is worrisome. That's because one of my core values is curiosity about things that matter. Like Mars. Also, I enjoy the company of bright, curious people and believe curiosity is key to longevity and happiness. 

This got me to thinking about what, if anything, rouses my curiosity these days. Nothing came to mind. Just a big fat blank.

"I must be curious about something," I thought, as I searched my web search history for clues: 
Easy recipes for vegan butternut squash soup
Iphone 6 cracked screen
80s dance workout music
Romantic comedies on Netflix
Mammograms and dense breasts
Argh. Rather than exploring life’s big questions, I am occupied with drivel -- soup, phones, bad 80s music, bad movies and breasts.

Especially breasts.

The breast thing was brought on by my annual mammogram, always a painful, degrading, yet fascinating experience. When I say fascinating, I mean in the way of a huge whitehead pimple, or say... the  human Barbi. A morbid fascination, if you will.

Most medical exams allow for a semblance of dignity. The nurse provides a paper gown and steps out while the patient changes. Next, the doctor politely knocks, and during the exam pushes the gown up, over and around sensitive areas.

Not so with my mammogram.  I was herded into a cold room dominated by a looming contraption manned by a portly technician. Without looking up from her paperwork, the technician commanded that I strip from the waist up. She did not bother with niceties such as an introduction, nor did she discretely step out while I disrobed.

After giving birth twice, decades of PAP smears and a pelvic ultrasound, I’ve lost all sense of modesty. However, this exchange seemed particularly barbaric. I shudder at the memory of the ultrasound, from which I still suffer  PTSD, but at least that technician said hello before probing my insides.  

Determined to inject a sliver of of humanity into our exchange, I asked this one her name as I went about the business of baring my breasts.  She looked up at my chest briefly muttered “Carmen,” then mumbled something about “medium” while taking notes.

Medium? Now this peaked my curiosity.

It also triggered an irrational, bizarro wish for Carmen to say something like, "wow, you have great tits." Coming from her, a bona fide expert in the field, it would have meant a lot.

I casually asked Carmen if medium referred to size. Ignoring my question, she scrutinized my chest and asked if I had implants. Perhaps she hadn't heard the question, and so  I persisted. "Are you suggesting it looks like I've had implants?"

Carmen was having none of it. She looked back to her notes and snapped, “I am not suggesting anything sweetheart, I am just asking if you have had implants.” 

"No," I sheepishly replied.

Now, I am vain, shameless and, as previously discussed, perhaps a tad crazy.  However, I am not completely daft. I get that, like radiologists who ask even withered crones if they are pregnant, and bouncers who demand ID from the most obviously ancient bar patrons, Carmen’s question was no testament to my youthful appearance. So even if she was the type to dish out false compliments and said, “honey, you look as pert as a swimsuit model,” I wouldn’t have believed her.

But still... a sweet gesture as I stood there exposed under the harsh light in all my middle-aged droopiness would have been nice. 

Carmen led me to the monster machine and adjusted the height. Without warning, she roughly lifted my right breast onto a plate and lowered a second plate to flatten it. The breast flattened and spread beyond the boundaries of the two plates. Frowning, Carmen raised the upper plate a fraction and shoved my wayward parts into compliance.

Her bedside manner brought to mind a butcher handling a piece of meat.

Fascinated, I disassociated from my breasts and looked down at them with wonder. They were separate beings. Shape changing aliens from a horror show, now the shape, thickness and color of pancakes.

I asked Carmen about her work. For a moment she lit up, actually looked at my face, and said she loves her job. As a person who has never liked a job, I am always interested (and envious) when others do. Even more interesting was someone who loves a profession that entails smashing breasts beyond recognition while the attached person winces and looks on in horror.

As I waited to speak with the radiologist, I did the numbers. For over 20 years, Carmen has done 30 mammograms a day, five days a week. This means she has seen and smashed over 100,000 sets and 200,000 individual breasts. This also means that more than 100,000 women have greeted Carmen with the enthusiasm of a dog for the groomer.

Looking at the math and specifics of Carmen's work, her sustained enthusiasm for mammography is truly a portrait of either a saint or a sadist. 

Eventually, a harried woman in a white coat came in and hurriedly explained that my mammogram doesn’t show cancer. Before I had time to be relieved, she also said  I have "dense breasts" and recommended a follow up ultrasound.

Now, I have been called dense before, but no one has ever accused me of having dense breasts. Before I could ask what that even means, the radiologist had moved on to the next patient.  

No matter, a quick Google search revealed a plethora of fascinating information. 

To wit:
  • 40% of women have dense breast tissue
  • those with high density are four to six times more likely to get breast cancer
  • mammograms miss 50% of cancers in dense breasts
And these are just a few of the many dense breast fun facts now at my fingertips.

While slightly disturbed about my own dense situation, I am pleased to have my curiosity mojo back I am officially ready for the next dinner party. I may not care about Mars, William or Kate, but if you want to talk dense breasts, come sit next to me.

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