I’m a few hours away, as I write this, from my first mammogram. It’s a procedure I’ve been thinking about for years as a gay journalist — lesbians, studies suggest, may be more at risk of breast cancer than straight women, a fact I’ve typed out in news stories dozens of times.
Mammograms save lives, as the saying goes, and I’ve always figured they would become part of my routine someday.
But I’m still three years away from 35, the age at which many health activists recommend a baseline mammogram. Many others say wait until 40, while some are happy with any point between 35 and 40. In any event, 32 is not supposed to be the age of a first mammogram.
I have a little lump in my breast, if any lump that concerns a doctor to the point of ordering a mammogram can be classified as “little. ” But mine is, really, pretty small and pretty definitely benign, as far as I’m concerned. I suppose I have to adopt this attitude, because I don’t feel like I have time or energy to worry about anything worse.
Also, the odds are with me on this one. My little lump appeared immediately on the heels of a nasty bout of mastitis, which is a breast infection most often associated with nursing mothers, but occasionally it occurs without explanation. I’m not a nursing mother — I guess I’m just lucky.
In September, I was laid up with a high fever and intense pain for a few days until I could get into my doctor’s office, where I got confirmation of the Internet diagnosis I’d already made. I read about how you should see your doctor, because mastitis can lead to an abscess, which manifests as a lump in the breast. So I saw my doctor. She gave me antibiotics and assured me I’d feel better in a couple of days, and she was right. I felt better.
But a little lump emerged and now I find myself scheduled for a mammogram followed by ultrasound — just to be sure.
Getting to this place, scheduled for this appointment and facing a procedure that I’ve heard described on a range from horribly unpleasant to absolutely no big deal, took some effort.
My doctor’s referral came about a month ago, but because of some traveling I did and my forgetfulness merging with irresponsibility — leaving the referral forms at home day after day, not having access to needed phone numbers during office hours — it took me a few weeks to make my appointments. This is uncharacteristic of me, because I’m usually proactive about scheduling appointments when my health is involved.
My therapist would say that something else was going on — not just traveling, not just forgetfulness; she’d ask what I was afraid of, and I’d be forced to look into just that. Here’s what I’d come up with: the procedure itself and the risk of a scary finding, regardless of how minimal that risk is. (My therapist, of course, would want me to probe deeper, but I’ll save that for the couch.)
The whole mess brings up some sticky issues for me. I believe strongly in preventive behavior and activity, but I don’t practice what I preach, not by a long shot.
I know what women need to do to stay healthy — I could write pamphlets in my sleep about lesbian health. I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t even perform monthly breast self-exams, despite my training and knowledge of lesbian health issues. But what’s more horrifying is that I am not alone. Most lesbians, most women, probably don’t check their breasts either.
Like many others, my health lapses don’t stop there. I don’t always eat right, I don’t really exercise and I make only small noises about meaning to get back to the gym, where I’ve been carrying a membership that’s gone unused for the past couple of years. I’ve gained weight, watching my formerly cute little saucepot belly grow into a not cute, inconvenient and unhealthy stockpot belly.
I’m great at making excuses, but none of them are good enough to put in print. I’m tired, I’m busy, I’m lazy — and so what? I have a job to do at work and I do it, so why pay less attention to the job I have in this piece of flesh-and-blood housing I inhabit?
Worse still, my current employment places me, on a daily basis, smack in the middle of this topic. I operate a news service that puts out material about studies on health and behavior — what we can do to live better and longer. I spend at least eight hours a day thinking about health and behavior.
I get good feedback from my bosses, so I guess I’m doing my work well, meanwhile ignoring the life-and-death work of living. Case in point: I work on the second story of my building, but when my buddy Will and I go out to lunch, I always groan when he heads to take the stairs instead of the elevator, which I almost always take when I’m alone. This is the guy who walks 45 minutes each way to and from work. He should be inspiring me, not fatiguing me.
I can imagine the response some people will have to what I’m saying here: Stop whining and do something about it. Really, isn’t it as easy as making up your mind to be healthier, and taking the steps to live better?
Maybe it is that easy, but reality throws thousands of hurdles in the way. I can focus on some positives: I don’t smoke and never have, I don’t use drugs, and despite alcoholism in my family, I rarely drink. Isn’t this all proof that I can be better? In the spirit of the upcoming new year, I’ll resolve to make changes in a positive direction soon.
Really. I mean it this time.
Kristina Campbell writes biweekly for MW, and is happy to report that the mammogram showed no cause for immediate concern. Follow-up is in six months. Cards and stuffed animals can be sent to email@example.com.