Photo: Courtesy of Cindy Chupack
On my 40th birthday, I got a mammogram.
Not as a gift. And not as a celebration, in the way that you might get a tattoo on your birthday, or go skydiving. It wasn't something I'd always wanted to do. I simply had a routine appointment, and it happened to be my 40th birthday, and I didn't appreciate the lameness of the timing until the receptionist asked for my date of birth.
As she wished me a happy birthday, I was reminded of a time, decades earlier, when I first moved to Los Angeles. I was taking a stand-up comedy workshop, and it quickly became clear that I was a better writer than performer, so a girl in the class asked me to write jokes for her. And that girl was…nobody you've heard of, because she wasn't that good, and neither were my jokes. But by way of thanking me, she took me to a trendy restaurant, and for some reason she showed up looking like she hadn't showered for days, and her greasy blonde hair was under a scarf. She was slightly strange to begin with, but she usually showered, so this seemed odd. Especially since we were at the trendy restaurant of her choosing. Now, maybe you're thinking this is going to be about how she was getting chemo and losing her hair, thus the scarf. It's not that poignant a story.
It's about my birthday, because she decided to lie and tell our waiter it was my birthday so he would bring us a free dessert, and as he and the rest of the waitstaff were singing, I remember thinking what a sad fake birthday this was. Why would I be out with my one weird friend (who didn't even shower) on my birthday? Where were the rest of my fake friends? And my fake boyfriend? And the fake gifts? Even back then, with no fabulousness to back me up, I felt too fabulous for that fake birthday.
And now, at 40, I was definitely too fabulous to be getting a mammogram on my actual birthday. But there I was, putting on the cotton robe and waiting for my name to be called.
Clearly, I wasn't thinking about the fact that it would be my birthday when I made the appointment. I have some close friends who are breast cancer survivors and they all benefited greatly from early detection, so I am a believer in the power of the breast sandwich. That's what it looks like when you get a mammogram, by the way. Particularly if you have large breasts, which I do. I don't say that to brag. I always wanted perky breasts, but I was blessed (or cursed) with large ones. I did not know how large they were until, at age 37, I got my first mammogram, and they were spread out before me in all their flat, fleshy glory. In fact, I did go skydiving once, when I was 17, and I can tell you that looking down at the ground from 3,500 feet was not as scary as looking down at my breast sandwich. So my advice to women who want to live longer and be healthier and happier: Do not avoid mammograms, but do avoid looking down when getting one.
Since that first mammogram I had at 37 (which, thankfully, came back normal), my health insurance changed its policy so that you had to be 40 to get a mammogram—even though you don't have to be 40 to get breast cancer, thank you very much. That's what I argued to some poor, overworked insurance claims person when I called to see why I had to wait. She explained that insurance requirements vary state to state, carrier to carrier, blah, blah, blah, so that's how I came to be at the doctor's on my 40th birthday.
Well, that and, also, I was getting married in a month, and my life was so full of appointments and plans that I didn't really think about what I was scheduling or when. I only thought about how I could check something, anything, off my to-do list, and eliminating the possibility of breast cancer was something I was eager to check off.
Only that's not what happened.