Mammograms and Wheelchairs

This is the story of me and the mammogram machine. It has all the elements of great adventure.  Fear, chaos, journey into the unknown, struggles against the insensitive and unthinking manufacturers of mammogram machines, and, ultimately, a triumph of humanity over technology.  It is a hero’s journey, if ever there was one except that I get to do it again every year and there was no need to cross water to obtain a transformation.  I just had to have the x-ray developed.

Special Circumstances

I am a high-level quadriplegic: paralyzed from the chest down.  I can breathe on my own.  My arms are impaired and I don’t stand up or walk -- ever. Other than that, all my parts are all there and in working order. I found the lump in my breast in my early 30s. It turned out to be a fluid pocket.  The surgeon removed the fluid with a needle and had it tested.  All clear but it still meant mammograms every six months for two years and then yearly for a few years after that and finally, down to every three years.  By that time, I was almost 40 and I had to go back to the yearly exam. Oh joy.

I was pretty nervous before my first mammogram. I know many women avoid them. Pain and fear of radiation. But the lump scared me, so shortly before I was to be tested, a friend gave me the following advice cut from a newspaper: She was sure it would help me with my fear. I have no idea where it was first published and I have shared with many friends over the years.


Advice On Getting Prepared

Many women are afraid of their first mammogram, but there is no need to worry. By taking a few minutes each day for a week preceding the exam and doing the following practice exercises, you will be totally prepared for the test, and best of all, you can do these simple practice exercises right in your home.

EXERCISE 1:

Open your refrigerator door and insert one breast between the door and the main box. Have one of your strongest friends slam the door shut as hard as possible and lean on the door for good measure. Hold that position for five seconds. Repeat again in case the first time wasn't effective enough.

EXERCISE 2:

Visit your garage at 3 AM when the temperature of the cement floor is just perfect. Take off all your clothes and lie comfortably on the floor with one breast wedged under the rear tire of the car. Ask a friend to slowly back the car up until your breast is sufficiently flattened and chilled. Turn over and repeat for the other breast.

EXERCISE 3:

Freeze two metal bookends overnight. Strip to the waist. Invite a stranger into the room. Press the bookends against one of your breasts. Smash the book-ends together as hard as you can. Set an appointment with the stranger to meet next year and do it again.

You are now properly prepared.

The Big Day

And I was sure I was. Silly me. It turned out to be less painful but far more difficult and exhausting than I anticipated. Apparently the designers of mammogram machines never thought that mobility impaired women might need a mammogram. That is the only explanation for the design of the machine I can think of.

As I said before, I don't stand up -- ever. However, to have the mammogram I had to stand up, lean forward, insert my breast in this little cubbyhole and stay still for several seconds. It took less engineering to build the Brooklyn Bridge.

Three technicians and a personal assistant supported my weight and stood me up. A fourth technician maneuvered the breast into position. This was more difficult than it might sound because the pillar that supported the machine was located exactly where my head was positioned. It became necessary to lean me sideways as well as forward. Out popped the breast. Discussions ensued. Another attempt was made. (My principal task was to avoid passing out. Hard to do when all the blood has left your head and headed straight for your legs.)

It took about four tries but then success. Then we had to do it all over for the other breast. I mean seriously now, I don't want breast cancer but good grief -- what a production!

Why We Endure

I went through this for many years.  Why?  I don’t usually set myself up for humiliating and frustrating experiences.  However, I'd known several women with breast cancer.  One is dead and the others aren’t.


A girlfriend's mother of found a lump one morning in the shower and was so scared that it was cancer that she didn't tell anyone.  When the tumor broke through the skin of her breast, she had no choice but to call the doctor.  At that point it was too late.  She died slowly and painfully.

My aunt found a lump in her breast about nine years ago.  She reported it to her doctor (it was cancer) and began treatment.  She's been cancer free for over eight years and has every reason to expect to remain that way. I don’t know if early detection would have made a difference for my friend's mother but everything I’ve read and heard from survivors indicates that finding cancer early is often the key.

Better Days

I’m happy to say that many things have changed in the last 15 years, including, mammogram machines. My last few have been a relative breeze. The new machines are suspended from the ceiling so a wheelchair will fit easily underneath. They move up and down and swivel to accommodate bent spines and breasts that no longer perkily point forward and up. The machines at my mammogram center are all digital so they know immediately if the mammogram shows enough breast tissue. It seems to me that the breasts squashing isn’t quite so bad but maybe I’m just used to it

The mammogram technicians are every bit as relieved about this as I am. The American Cancer Society recommends a screening mammogram every three years starting at 20 and continuing until you're 40 and then every 2 years after that.

In addition to a mammogram, all women should do breast self exams or, in my case, have a personal assistant or family member check the breast tissue regularly. Being aware of how breast tissue feels is sometimes the earliest way to detect a problem. Any lumps or unusual tissue changes should be reported to your doctor immediately.

It's no secret that women with disabilities have to make a special effort to get regular health care. Sometimes the problem is money or transportation or just finding the energy to deal with yet another health-care issue. And, let's be honest about this, sometimes it's embarrassing to ask for help when it comes to "private" parts of the body. Be brave. It is getting better.

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