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Breast sandwich

Mary Manning |  19 April 2011

Breast screenThis hospital is like a city where some people wear their names on lanyards around their necks and walk the corridors purposefully while others hobble, stagger or are pushed on trolleys or in wheelchairs. Then there are people like me who wander around, confused because there are no recognisable landmarks, street names or road signs, only painted lines to follow.

Every time I come here I go to a different address depending on the procedure of the day. Today I find myself in a corridor with doors to an outdoor seating area, so I duck out to call my mother.

'Mum. Just reminding you about the op shop today.'

'But I've just put out my medicine for tomorrow and there's something wrong. I should have one capsule that's half-red and half-blue, one that's green all over and three while pills. But I've only got two white pills.'

'Do you know which one is missing?'

'The big long one I have to chew up because I can't swallow it. It's shaped like those surfboards you children used to have. At Lorne. Do you remember?'

'I do. That's the calcium pill. I'll get you some more on the way home. Are you ready to leave for the op shop now?'

'Are you sure today is op shop day? I just have to lock the door.'

'Have you put the phone in your bag?'

'I'm not silly.'

I take the first lift going up, get out at what is probably the wrong floor, turn around a few times and am suddenly in the familiar landscape of the radiography department.

'Just take a seat until you are called,' says the receptionist.

What will be my punishment for being a few minutes late? Will I be made to wait for ten minutes? Thirty?

I think of my mother on her way to op shop duty. She told me last week she'd been promoted to second-hand book manager and her new job is to stack donated books on shelves. She prefers to work behind the counter, taking the money and writing down what people buy, but they said she should have a rest from that for a while.

Now a beautiful young woman calls my name.

'I'm Shareena,' she says. 'I'm your radiographer for today. For your breast screen.' She speaks with a lilt, and clearly enough for the whole waiting room to know my business.

An old man, leg in plaster, looks away from the television when he hears the word breast. His eyes linger over my sensible tailored shirt and I wonder if I have left a button undone.

'Step this way.' Shareena indicates the x-ray room. 'Please to take everything off above the waist. Put on the robe open this way to the front.'

White cotton, many times washed and flattened by some giant press. Two strings that should tie up somewhere, or to each other. I clutch it together.

'Step up to this machine,' she says. 'Have you seen it before?'

'The machine and I are old friends. I give it a big hug at least once a year.'

'Ah, yes,' she says looking at my card, 'so you do.'

How stupid I look in boots, tights and tweed skirt, and nothing on top.

'Relax your muscles. Now facing the machine, put your right hand on your tummy and your left hand at your side. I have to flatten you, get it all in the picture. Breathe in. Hold breath. Did that hurt?'

I tell her I felt like a slab of Turkish bread in a sandwich press.

'Now the doctor will compare these pictures with the last lot to see if anything is changing. You will be waiting for a short time.' She taps expertly on the keyboard.

'Can I make a phone call while I wait? My mum.' I don't know why I tell her that.

'Put your shirt on and phone from the waiting room away from this machine.'

'Are you there yet, Mum?'

'I am having a rest on the bus stop. It is a bit hot. Do you know where I can get one of those ice creams you peel the paper off and squash in between two wafer biscuits. What are they called? The girl at 7-Eleven has never heard of them.'

I persuade her to buy an icy pole, a fruity one.

I am back in my robe when Shareena returns. 'Doctor says one more view to make picture clearer from another angle.' She busies herself attaching new parts to the machine.

'Now this time from the side. Step closer. No, do not lean with your back, step with your feet. Left breast on machine, lean over, pull left shoulder back, twist, hold other breast out of the way, back straighter, face with chin to wall, hold in breath. Ah! Now finished. You will wait while doctor decides.'

I sit for a long time clutching my robe. I am getting tired of this routine. At times I feel like a sculpture in an outdoor art exhibition stroked and rubbed by the fingers of strangers.

Shareena bounces in, young, beautiful. 'Doctor is sorry to make you wait. All is well. You go home now. Another patient coming in here now.'

I find the way out to the street and phone my mother again. 'Are you there yet?'

'I'm sitting on the bus seat. I can't remember what you told me to buy.' She sounds sad and confused.

'So you haven't been to the op shop yet?'

'They said it's the wrong day. I don't have to go on Tuesday any more.'

'Which day then? Did they change your day?'

'They say they wrote me a letter. Did I show you a letter?

'Not from the op shop. What did they say in the letter? Did they tell you?'

'That I should have four weeks off and then they'll see. Maybe three weeks. They think I'm a bit tired and need a rest.'

I imagine her in the bus shelter. She's become hunched over lately because her bones need more than the calcium in the surfboard-shaped pills. Her fragile bones are being crushed under the weight of her sparrow body.

Note: The above story is a work of fiction.



Mary ManningMary Manning is a Melbourne writer and a former editorial assistant for Eureka Street



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Submitted comments

Thank you Mary for the brief reminder of what I face today. I will hopefully be mindful of it as I wait to be slapped between the two pieces of cone wafers, and find a smile creeping across my face. Trish

patricia Taylor 27 April 2011

But did you have to make that snide comment about the old man?

Frank 27 April 2011

Thanks for sharing your experience, Mary. Yes, having a 'mam' does make you feel rather like the meat in the sandwich. And the waiting around while the radiologist checks your first films is always the worst - you know it could be life-changing.

Always have to remind myself I'm being pro-active - it could save my life. Your piece transported me back to that little cubicle... . BW, Jane

Jane O'Callaghan 27 April 2011

There was nothing snide about the writer's comment about the old man. Many women have experienced such intrusive glances. Having a mammogram is a very feminine and private challenge, usually with some anxiety about the result. Men have no place in such waiting rooms. If a woman needs support, please take a female friend or relative with you.

Marjorie 27 April 2011

It's awesome!

spiritedcrone 30 April 2011

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