‘It’s Better To Die Of Cancer Than Bringing Shame Of Having A Mammogram’ I Was Told!

Breast check-up? What’s that? A middle-aged woman had once confided in me that breasts are for pleasure. Their sole purpose is mere gratification.

Trigger Warning: This deals with violence against women, gaslighting, and slut shaming, and may be triggering for survivors.

January 2016. I had just finished nursing my five-month-old baby when I found a lump in my right breast. Breast tumour! Cancer?

We rushed to the gynaecologist. An elderly lady of repute, she examined and advised an immediate mammogram. She cautioned us. ‘There is only one clinic which does mammograms. But they have a bad reputation.’

We were then posted in a small town in Jharkhand. It was one of our most unsafe stays in the East. How can I ever forget the loud hooting every time I rode out? The constant grinding against my back when I lined up at the bank. Or how those four boys accosted me when I was heavily pregnant. Or the attempted violence at a restroom in a five-star property. I faced many such instances where I was disregarded, disrespected and victimized for being a woman.

‘It’s better to die of cancer than bring shame.’

On the day of my scheduled appointment, we found a serpentine queue at the billing counter in the clinic.

My turn came. I mentioned ‘mammogram’ to the person manning the counter. He looked up, shot me a look and then his gaze slowly shifted to my breasts. They lingered there while a smile formed around his lips. ‘So, what’s the story?’ He asked me. I explained. This time he tried hard to focus on my right breast. ‘Does it pain?’ He asked again. My husband who had been cradling the baby stepped in. He questioned, ‘Is it your job to write a case history or generate a bill?’ Flummoxed, the man handed me the papers.

I found a seat and sat down. An elderly woman sat beside me. A while later, the woman asked about the test I was supposed to undergo. She did not understand the term. I explained further. Gasping in horror, she covered her face. Other women stared hard at me; shock and disdain were written on their faces.

A woman whispered. ‘Isn’t your husband enough? Why do you need strangers to fondle your private parts?’

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Another added. ‘It’s better to die of cancer than bring shame.’

By then, I was mobbed by those women. It was stifling and the baby let out a loud cry. That saved me. The husband pushed them aside and brought me out.

I appeared dazed, he told me later.

We realized getting a mammogram done was equivalent to committing a sin.

I was lied to, and then shamed

My name was called out. The same man stood there lasciviously grinning at me. “Your turn. Go in.’

I entered a dark and dinghy room. In one corner, sat a man. He smiled back. ‘Let’s start.’ I looked around. There were no female attendants.

‘The lady doctor hasn’t arrived and might not come today. Either you get it done by me or come back another day.’ He said.

A male doctor! No way! I stepped back. ‘I will wait.’ I told him.

‘She may not turn up.’ He insisted.

‘That’s fine.’ I was adamant.

The wait continued. We grew restless. My little boy was at home, on his own. The fear of a tumour bothered me. The clock ticked away. It was already 3.30 pm. The clinic closes at 4 pm.

The ‘billing’ man reappeared. ‘I have good news for you. We can give you a female attendant. She will be present during the examination.’

My patience was running thin. ‘How many times will I tell you that I want a female doctor and not a male doctor for a mammogram?’ My voice was several notches higher than usual. Scared, the man scurried away. That’s when a young woman in a nurse’s uniform called out to me. ‘Madam. Did you mention mammogram?’

I nodded and told her about my ordeal. An expression of disbelief crossed her face.

‘Please come with me. Bring your husband along. The lady doctor is about to leave. Fast, Madam.’

We realized that it had all been a lie.

My husband remained present in the room during the process. I did not have the courage to go through it on my own. The doctor was polite and gentle. She repeatedly checked my breasts and assured me all was well.

We stepped out of the clinic, exhausted and relieved. We did not notice the group surrounding me cutting me off from my husband.

Tthooo! Splatt! Thwap! I looked up to see people spitting on me. I heard the word, ‘Randi’ several times. The ‘billing’ man was also present. ‘She has bad character.’ He declared. A sandal flew at me. Before I blacked out, I saw my husband stepping into the ruckus.

‘Breasts are only for pleasure of men’

It’s been seven years since then. I carefully choose the hospital where I undergo mammograms. I double-check the doctor and the room. Nothing untoward has happened. But the fear and the trauma persists. My first mammogram gave me the gift of hypertension.

But I realize that I am privileged. There must be many women who have concerns about their breasts. But they lack the safe space to talk about it. Talking about our breasts is taboo.

Breast check-up? What’s that? A middle-aged woman had once confided in me that breasts are for pleasure. Their sole purpose is mere gratification.

The consulting doctor at a renowned hospital in Kolkata tells me that very few women appear for a mammogram. Routine checkups are rare unless there is a perceived problem.

Only ‘strong’, ‘bold’ and ‘empowered’ women religiously get their mammograms done.

She mentioned the levels of stress that a patient goes through during the test. With fists clenched, and trembling hands, most patients are a bundle of nerves. It is normal, for there have been cases where a hapless woman has either been forced to undergo a mammogram at the hands of a male doctor or endure the presence of a male assistant during the process.

I am a witness and a survivor of such grave misconduct. All I wish is that there is respect for a woman’s body, her need for privacy and the very fact that she is a woman.

Editor’s note: Women regularly face #MedicalMisogyny from health care professionals. For the WHO World Health Day 2023 theme of ‘Health for All’, identifying this misogyny and ensuring #Equity in healthcare is essential. All of April, we will be sharing stories with you on this these, either personal stories or fiction. Find them all here.

Image source: a still from the film Padman

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About the Author

S Sen

Sreemati Sen holds a Masters in Social Work from Visva Bharati, Shantiniketan. She is a Development Professional, specialised in Psychiatric care of Differently Abled Children. That hasn’t stopped her from exploring other fields. Years read more...

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