Baring my Boobs: Why I’m a Mammogram Virgin No More

August 25, 2014

Me before my first mammogram Me before my first mammogram

No, I'm not a flasher.  Except when I go skinnydipping in the lake, and then I hope it's only the fish watching.

And no, the subject of this post is not meant to titillate (no pun intended), so get your mind out of the gutter. It's about my being a 60+ woman who was too afraid  to have a mammogram. There, I said it. Whew. Even saying it was hard. Because I know what you're thinking.

You're probably rolling your eyes right now, like every doctor who tried to talk sense into me that I refused to listen to. None of them actually rolled their eyes, at least not in my presence, but I sensed their incredulity.  How could an intelligent, seemingly normal person be opposed to a potentially life-saving medical test?

I'll tell you.  I was raised by a mom who was deeply suspicious of the medical profession. Not once did any of her six kids see the inside of a pediatrician's office. None of us were immunized; she was convinced you could get cancer from a measles shot. And she was intelligent and otherwise normal, too. I'm not sure of the origin of her suspicions.  All I know is, if there's an alternative remedy to a common ailment, I've tried it. And believe me, you learn at an early age not to be a whiner when the "remedy" for whatever ails is an enema! (Mom's favorite cure-all).

This doesn't mean I raised my kids the same way. My son and daughter were both immunized and no strangers to the pediatrician's. For most of my adult life I've gone in for my annual physical and, in recent years, stripped down for the full-body scan at my dermatologist's bi-annually. Then, when I hit 50, I started getting the mammogram speech from my doctors. I figured that with no history of cancer in my family, there was no rush to get tested.  And surely no need. The truth is, I was scared.  Another thing my mom instilled in me was a deep fear of X-rays.

In the year 2000, I was hospitalized for 2 weeks with acute diverticulitis, and had no choice in the matter.  I had so many x-rays during that time, I became convinced I would glow in the dark if I had one more. Then I WOULD get cancer, from the radiation.

Flash forward to present day. I live in New York City but am often found at my adopted home in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, where I come several months of the year to write. A few weeks ago, I paid a visit to the local walk-in clinic, Burnett Medical Center, for a minor health issue (allergies) and had the good fortune to meet an extraordinary doctor, Dr. Adeola Jolayemi, known in these parts simply as Doctor Jo. Doctor Jo quizzed me after noticing I hadn't checked the box on my patient history form for the date of most recent mammogram.

Me and Dr. Jo Me and Dr. Jo

When I confessed my fear, she didn't roll her eyes or lecture me. In the past whenever I sensed a doctor thinking I was a nut job (if a well-spoken and presentable one), I'd feel my back go up.  Instead, this time I listened as Doctor Jo looked me in the eye and said, "There are women in poor countries who are dead of breast cancer because this test wasn't available to them. You have it at your fingertips. Use it." Because she appealed to me as one intelligent woman to another, I didn't feel judged or crazy. When she was done I thanked her, and said, "OK, you convinced me. I'll do it." I booked an appointment that day.

Today I went in for my very first ever mammogram. I have heart palpitations as I write this, just thinking about it--and it's over and done with! I'm thinking about my childhood friend, Kay, who died a year ago from complications caused by cancer, and who tore a hole in the fabric of my life in exiting this world.  I'm thinking, "What if I'm next?" But mostly I'm relieved. It's behind me. And I'm not glowing (it's still light out, so I can state factually I won't.  Check with me after dark).

The radiology technician, Cindy, couldn't have been more reassuring. (Everyone I've met here in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, is so NICE.) Turned out Cindy lives just across the lake and is a neighbor of a cousin of my friend Jon Giswold who owns the house I stay at. She made me feel comfortable as we chatted.  Well, as comfortable as you can be with your boobs squeezed in what feels like a vise. We joked about the "pasties" you stick on your nipples prior to the exam.  It was over and done with before I had a chance to break into a sweat thinking about Mom rolling over in her grave.

photo 2 Cindy Jensen, the friendly neighborhood radiology technician

photo 4 Prep included a warm wash cloth for washing my armpits!

The "big, bad monster" The "big, bad monster"

I see this as my own personal ice-bucket challenge.  I read a great quote the other day: "We are all victims of our unexamined beliefs." I realized I'd been letting my mom's fears poison my natural good sense. I was clinging to a belief that dated back to childhood and was perhaps groundless, and certainly not rooted in the reality of present day.  Now I sit tight and wait for the results.


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Josie on Mon, August 25, 2014 at 7:12:29 said:


Talk about an inspiring article!

I get a sense of calm every time I go in for a mammogram and my annual pap smear (yearly, note please, Eileen) because prevention is better than the cure.  I’ve had too many friends who have had breast cancer—and survived—to not do what I can to catch early.  So happy you found a doctor to inspire you to do the same. 

Next time we meet, we toast Doctor Jo! (as opposed to Josie, who faints at the sight of blood…)

    Eileen on Mon, August 25, 2014 at 10:36:14 said:

    Thanks, hon. We will indeed toast Dr. Jo.  Us and our two pairs of breasts. It was a big step for me in overcoming my fear, and a huge leap forward in terms of personal growth.

    Eileen on Thu, August 28, 2014 at 2:03:34 said:

    Darling Josie, I can’t picture you fainting at the sight of blood. You’re fierce.

Meredith Schorr on Mon, August 25, 2014 at 8:24:55 said:

Thank you for your bravery in writing this post! I bet you have inspired many women who are also afraid of the mammogram to go get one. It’s a very scary experience, particularly when you have dense breasts, like me, and the mammogram is conducted with an ultrasound too. Again, kudos to you for your raw honesty. XOXO.

    Eileen on Mon, August 25, 2014 at 10:38:05 said:

    Thanks, Meredith! Coming from you, that means a lot. Ever since I’ve known you I’ve been in awe of your honesty in revealing your innermost thoughts and fears in your blog posts. You inspire me.

Patricia Mann on Mon, August 25, 2014 at 9:03:14 said:

How amazing to see your post today! I also went in for a long overdue mammogram today. I’m with you, it’s no fun, and I usually let too much time pass between mine. But I have to agree with Dr. Jo’s profound words. You and she have inspired me to get back to making this a yearly commitment. I’m so glad you got the first time over with and will be doing the same! Thanks! grin

    Eileen on Mon, August 25, 2014 at 10:43:00 said:

    What a funny coincidence we both went in for mammograms the same day! Hopefully this will inspire others like us who’ve either put it off or become paralyzed by their fears. I thought I was safe because no one in my family has had breast cancer, until the radiology tech informed me that 80% of women over the age of 60 who get breast cancer have no family history of cancer. Hello. Talk about a giant wake-up call.

Julie Valerie @Julie_Valerie on Wed, August 27, 2014 at 2:01:21 said:

Crazy great post, Eileen. Probably one of my favorites.

One of my best friends underwent a Double-M this year and she started poking at me to get my annual mammogram. I had a baseline mammogram around the time I turned 35 and then again at 40, but I’ve been a bit lazy since then, letting 2+ years go by between mammograms. I had a symptom that was alarming - and I guess I was too wigged out to do anything, so I froze and did nothing. And I can’t explain it - but I just sort of . . . kept forgetting to set an appointment. Like the denial that something might be wrong converted into full blown forgetfulness.

So this friend of mine, while undergoing the series of surgeries required to remove then rebuild her breasts, started taking pictures each day of the shoes she was wearing, telling me she was going to kick my @ss while wearing those shoes if I didn’t schedule an appointment. A couple weeks of these photos reminders went by, then she sent me a picture of her feet - wearing very serious Frye boots - and told me in no uncertain terms that this time, the kick was going to hurt. Upon closer look at the boot picture, I noticed the photo was taken on a familiar set of brick steps. She had taken the photo while standing on MY front porch. Just then, the doorbell rang. It was her, a few days after a surgery, with bandages still wrapped around her chest. She said, “I’m here to kick your ass and I’m not leaving until you make that phone call.”

Well, who am I to argue with boot-wearing woman fighting breast cancer who just drove across town to kick my ass and sent me a photo to prove it?

I made the appointment.

    Eileen on Thu, August 28, 2014 at 2:02:05 said:

    Julie. that’s a great story! You need to blog about it.  Our own ice bucket challenge - and then invite other women to share their own stories. This could seriously save lives! Oh, and thank your friend for me for making you schedule that appointment smile

Jayne Denker on Wed, August 27, 2014 at 8:08:44 said:

Good for you! It’s definitely not on any woman’s top ten list of Fun Things to Do, but so necessary. Congrats!

    Eileen on Thu, August 28, 2014 at 1:58:43 said:

    Necessary - yes. And now I can face my gyno without her rolling her eyes at me!

Sandie on Wed, August 27, 2014 at 9:38:35 said:

Firstly, good luck with the results. What an inspiration both you and Dr Jo are. Well done for getting over your fear. And I love the quote at the end. Great post.

    Eileen on Thu, August 28, 2014 at 1:57:46 said:

    Thank you. I’m relieved just to have done it.  I know it must not seem like a big deal to most women, but because of the way I was raised it was a huge hurdle for me. Whatever comes of it, it’s better to know that not know.

Elizabeth Hein on Sat, August 30, 2014 at 9:04:58 said:

I’m glad you went through with it, despite your misgivings. The women that work in mammography centers are usually super nice. After the first few times you go, it becomes less weird feeling and just another part of self-care.

    Eileen on Sat, August 30, 2014 at 9:58:38 said:

    Thank you, Elizabeth.  It wasn’t so much weird as scary, given my family history (and I don’t mean history of cancer). But I’m over the hump and will go regularly from now on. Whew

Kevin Lysdahl on Wed, September 03, 2014 at 3:09:35 said:

I heard the story live but now have all the details.  Great story on the importance of doing it.  I will have to tell Cindy she is published, well at least her photo.  See you soon.


    Eileen on Thu, September 04, 2014 at 2:21:34 said:

    You’re my first guy commenter, Kevin. Yes please pass this on to Cindy. She’s great.