Today I experienced something that few men ever do. I had my first mammogram.
Yes, men do get breast cancer. About one out of every thousand males is so diagnosed. This translates to only about 1% of all breast cancer cases. Granted, this is nothing compared to the one out of every nine women who find themselves with breast cancer at some time of their lives. But neither does it mean that we men are exempt because of our gender.
I had been warned that getting a mammogram is uncomfortable. For me, however, the chief source of discomfort was being a man stepping into a woman’s world. You feel like an intruder, like you don’t belong there. A woman in a paper gown steps out into the corridor and I instantly avert my eyes. I remind myself: This is a medical procedure, this has been approved by my doctor, this is for my own good. (Shudder)
I grit my teeth and navigate the bureaucracy that is Kaiser. I go to the location where my doctor sees patients and get my unrelated bloodwork done. Then I step into radiology and “take a letter” (a laminated ticket marked by a letter rather than a number). I suddenly get the feeling that I am in the wrong waiting area and walk back to check. It appears that the outer room is the “waiting room” and the inner room the “waiting area.” I go back and sit down. I read work email on my phone and play a few Words with Friends turns until I hear “Letter F!”
I return to the counter in the narrow vestibule. “What’re you here for?” asks the woman behind the cutout window. Having been listening to other patients come and go, I know the choices are X-ray, ultrasound or mammogram. Still, I am tempted to answer “second degree larceny and committing lewd acts with a chicken.”
“I am here for a mammogram,” I tell her. Words I never thought would escape my mouth in all my days on earth. Ms. Kaiser makes a face and then quickly recovers herself. I can hear her thinking “You have got to be kidding me, son.”
“Men have to get mammograms sometimes, too,” I blurt out. I read my medical record number off my phone, which I have now provided so many times that I should have the darned thing memorized.
She spends an inordinate amount of time studying something on her screen. She turns around and consults with another employee. “You’re gonna have to go to Point West. We can’t do it here. There has to be a radiologist present and we don’t have one here.”
Dismissed. Welcome to the wonderful world of managed care.
“The wait is an hour to an hour and a half. You want me to make you an appointment?” I say yes and she calls over there, but it just rings and rings. When she tells me that they don’t answer their phone, I reply that I’ll just go and wait.
“I need the address, please,” I tell her. I’m still new to Kaiser and unfamiliar with their dog and pony show. She writes something on the back of a card and I make a hasty retreat. My wife is waiting on a bench just outside the front doors and I give her the news that we have to trek clear across town. I decide not to mention how long we will have to wait, as she is already pissed off because she is drowning in work and should be at home on her laptop doing it. I hand her the card. This isn’t the first time that I’m glad she grew up in Sacramento. I seldom drive and basically have no clue how to get from Point A to Point B. Yes, I know, we’ve lived here for a year already and I should get off my butt and learn how to get around.
On the drive over, I decide to face the music. “I’m probably going to have to wait a really long time,” I sheepishly admit.
“You don’t know that!” my wife snaps back. She knows how pessimistic I tend to be about everything. “Yes, I do,” I protest. “They told me it might be up to 90 minutes.”
My wife drops me off at the Point West facility entrance and I hike down a long corridor to radiology. This time I’m dealing with a male employee. I breathe a sigh of relief and hope he’ll be more sympathetic than they were at Fair Oaks.
No such luck. I tell him I’m there for a mammogram, which, despite assurances from my doctor, they would not do at the other location. I tell him a radiologist has to be present and I practically throw the card at him. He looks at me like I’m from outer space. He consults several times with a female colleague. Turns out he doesn’t know what code to enter in the computer. Apparently “mammogram” is not a choice on the screens for male patients. That’s Kaiser for you. Thrive, my ass.
Is this an initial? Yes. Diagnostic? Did you feel a lump? Do you have discomfort? Any breast cancer in your family?
Just when I think they’re going to send me away, the two employees finally figure out how to do some kind of manual override. “I was told I don’t have to have an appointment,” I whine. I really don’t want to have take time off of work (and have my wife take time off from her work because I don’t know where the hell I’m going) to come back another day. Okay, let’s be honest, I just want to get this done because I don’t want to have to go through it all over again.
Having parked the car, my wife shows up just as I arrive in the waiting room. She is getting upset because her work isn’t getting done and she believes that I don’t respect her time, which is quite reasonable considering a stupid thing I did recently. I have sleep apnea and have a CPAP machine to help me breathe at night. The thing is old and decrepit and needs to be replaced. I have an appointment for the equipment to be examined next week at yet a different Kaiser location. I asked them if I could just send my wife with the equipment and they said no, the patient has to be present. My wife was pissed that I would even ask such a thing and she is 100% right. I amaze myself at the depth of my idiocy sometimes.
Just like in the other place, neither my wife nor I am quite sure that we’re in the right waiting room. But in just a few minutes, the door to the inner sanctum opens and a technologist with a heavy eastern European accent calls my name. She walks me to the examining room, where I find that she is as confused as everyone else.
“How long have you had Kleinfelter’s Disease?” she asks me as she looks at my medical record. I am appalled at her ignorance, but try to be polite because, after all, this woman is about to handle my breasts. Um, yeah, she could hurt me. I explain that it is a syndrome, not a disease, a chromosomal disorder that one has from birth and that gynecomastia is a common symptom, often suppressed by testosterone therapy, which ironically increases the odds of breast cancer. Some of the literature discusses the advantages of having a mastectomy. This is something, like breast cancer, that I prefer not to think about. Not yet, anyway. Thoughts of chemotherapy, my hair falling out and getting sick at work in front of management flash before my eyes. I shake it off and remind myself that this is just routine, preventative. Pull yourself together and get this done.
The procedure itself is no big deal. She smashes me pretty well into that machine, which is what I fully expect based on the sign on the wall announcing “We compress because we care.” The Nick Lowe song “Cruel to be Kind” starts playing in my mind.
“I torture people all day long,” the tech reassures me. Just where is that accent from? Poland? Ukraine? Chechnya? Just before I went in I had pulled out my phone to find that I had a missed call from someone in, of all places, Russia. One of sadistic Ms. I Love Torture’s relations, perhaps?
“Don’t breathe,” she tells me each time she gets my breast in just the right position to take the next picture. After repositioning me several times on one side and then repeating the exercise on the other, it is over. She tells me to wait while she takes the pictures out to be examined by a radiologist. Five minutes later she returns and tells me that they didn’t find anything and I don’t have to go for an ultrasound. I put my shirt back on and prepare to get the hell out of there.
“Come back any time you want me to torture you some more,” the tech tells me as she disappears around a corner.
Men as well as women are encouraged to perform breast self-examinations on a regular basis. Learn about the warning signs of breast cancer in men here.