Once you get past the shock of learning you have breast cancer, the realization that quite a few people will be viewing a rather personal part of your anatomy begins to sink in. This is not welcome news for those of us who tend to be physically modest, that is, most of us.
Pelvic exams are still No. 1 on my list of Least Dignified Procedures, but I’m lucky there because I’ve seen my doctor for something like 17 or 18 years. I’ve reached the point where I can chat with him and his nurse about Husker football while his hand is, shall we say, occupied.
Whenever I’m in that goofy robe (or the paper “lobster bib” my general surgeon favors) I tell myself it’s just another day at the office for them. Meaning I’m not showing them anything they haven’t seen before, so I’ll pretend I’m as relaxed as they are. That usually helps.
I also lean on humor when I’m stressed, and I often remember the beyond-brilliant Richard Pryor’s riff on physical modesty. He talked about the indignity of handing over a urine sample and how if any of us civilians were collecting it we’d enter in hazmat suits like we were defusing a bomb. He compared that to health workers zooming in and saying “Is this your p*ss? Thank you!” and snatching it like a cup of coffee.
I’ve gotten used to the general indignities of medical procedures, including mammograms, as I’ve gotten older. The facility where I get mine only uses female technicians, and I think that helps. If your facility doesn’t, you are certainly within your rights to ask for one.
But in spite of all this, whipping the girls out for inspection at least once and sometimes twice a week while I was treated for breast cancer definitely took some getting used to. And my comfort window, if you can call it that, was initially pretty narrow.
I had gotten used to having my left (bad) breast inspected. But after our second attempt at breast-conserving surgery, my surgeon looked at the right one. He had never done this before and I was startled enough to ask him why. He replied for symmetry, which made total sense but I was momentarily ready to leap off the examining table. I eventually did get used to it, but there were times I really wished something was wrong with my arm or leg.
I guess my point with all this is that if you’re modest, know you’re not alone and that you can get through it. I like to tell my family doctor that no one ever died of embarrassment, but that’s not strictly true. If you’re too shy to get a screening exam that could save your life, it’s entirely possible.
Take a friend with you. Tell yourself it will be over soon, and remind yourself that medical professionals are here to help you, not shame you. In my experience, shame is self-inflicted and like fear and doubt, we’re our own worst enemies. Don’t give in. Do whatever it takes to get through that screening, but don’t avoid it. You just might save your life.