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A Rich Family History

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

"Mammograms should be called mammygrams," I thought to myself as I sat in the waiting room at the Providence Women's Health Center. I put my appointment in my calendar as just that, mammygram, before realizing the loaded connotation of the word mammy and quickly editing myself. The word "mammy" is used to mean "mother" in Whales and Ireland, but we are not in Whales or Ireland. A mammy in America is a stereotyped black woman who worked for a white family and probably raised their children. In defense of my errant thought process, the Women's Health Center was exceedingly motherly, filled with older women who kindly instructed me to fill out this form, wait here, undress here, remove your underarm antiperspirant, wait here again.

The center was painted pale pink with large plush couches. There was a meditation room off to one side, presumably for women facing serious health concerns. There were Dove chocolates and calming instrumental music, and neat pink gowns that opened in the front. I was only there for a routine mammogram. It was my first mammogram, because I'm 30 now, with a rich family history of cancer.

Having a rich family history is usually a good thing. A rich family history of attending Harvard, say, or of working in the family real estate business, or of healthy procreation. Some families have rich histories of wealth and prosperity. Some families have rich histories of racial oppression or alcoholism or cancer. All of us never asked to be here or deal with any of it.

My family has an assortment of histories and tangible or intangible riches, but today I'm writing about cancer because I just had my breasts smashed between plastic for the first of many times. My maternal grandmother passed away from breast cancer. Many of her siblings fought cancer as well. They were not wealthy and treatment was not very sophisticated. The chasm between my doctor's office and their medical experience feels so wide that I can barely see the other side. I would imagine that most parents hope that their children have a better life than they did, better being the crucial word in that sentence. But I couldn't help but look backward a few generations and consider how far this has all come. I have a good job with good health insurance that covers precautionary treatments like yearly mammograms and pap smears. I don't have to wait until I'm incredibly sick to access treatment, and today's large machines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars can trace any abnormality with incredible precision.

My mother and her sisters have all had various breast or ovarian cancers as well. My mother's story is not mine to tell, but I was in high school when cancer was detected in her fallopian tubes, one of the rarest forms of ovarian cancer. I didn't know this at the time, but her cancer has a very high recovery rate; over 90% when detected before spreading outside the ovaries or tubes. But we didn't know if it had spread at first, and there is no doctor or research paper on this planet that can remove the fear that is inherent in a rich family history. It was impossible to watch my mother in her sickness and not think of her mother, too, who never made it out of the darkness.

I imagine that this is how most generational traumas feel; why a black woman might detest the word "mammy" or grow rigid and cautious around police officers. When you love someone who has suffered and when you are physically close to that suffering, you can't help but wonder if maybe, your own story might run in parallel. I am not traumatized by the knowledge that I may have some sort of genetic predisposition, but I do get emotional filling out my family history on intake forms, writing name after name, cancer after cancer, starting with those furthest away in time and ending with the closest person to me; my mother.

The woman at the check-in counter smiled at me, "You're just a baby! Family history?" and I nodded. A rich one.

"This is just precautionary," she chirped, "are you nervous?" I shook my head, and she looked down at my chart at the list of family members I'd listed and their respective illnesses. I don't know all the people in my bloodline, and even though the sheet was full, I felt like I may have missed something.

She noticed me fidgeting and leaned forward a bit, "You'll be fine," she reassured me, "this doesn't mean anything." For a minute, I thought she may be right. I'm healthy and fit. I take good care of my body and try to take good care of my brain. But in my heart, I knew she was wrong. Family history can't mean nothing. Family history is the soil my roots are planted in. There are a thousand things that have helped me grow but I couldn't grow at all if not for my roots.

When I left, I was given a packet of information about genetic testing and a validation for parking that still required me to pay one dollar. As I drove home, I thought about how much money the hospital makes from all the people who pay a dollar to park as they have their bodies poked and prodded and tested and treated. Millions a year, I figured. When I got home, I added "mammogram" as a recurring event in my calendar so next May, I won't forget.

P.S. Download the Know Your Lemons app to learn how to do a self breast exam, read more about the survival rates for breast cancer and the importance of early detection here, or brush up on the basics of ovarian cancer here.


Sarah Rose

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