I've seen signs near bridges being built or highway work crews pouring new concrete saying "Your tax dollars at work." This phrase occurred to me yesterday as I sat in a homey waiting room -- good decorating job: nice overstuffed chairs, comfortable settees, attractive lamps with sufficient light for aging eyes to read by, forgettable pictures on the wall, aged but not tattered magazines and eight or ten women much like myself, all wearing stripped cotton wrappers over their bare breasts, mostly gray haired -- not young and sexy like the only photo I could find which you see here. Most were Medicare age, like me, and probably it was Medicare that was paying for most of us to have had a pleasant young woman do a manual beast exam - with just washed and chilly hands -- and to go into the X-ray rooms when our names were called and undergo the body twisting placement against the cold metal of the machine and then the flat plates pressing and flattening our breasts for two views of each breast as we held our breath and tried not to say "Ow!". It was all done in a very professional, pleasant manner. As comfortably impersonal as the waiting room.
I looked up from my magazine as the technicians came in and called names -- the last names reflected a broad ethnic diversity but we all looked much alike, mostly gray haired or white, our bodies well fleshed although none of us were obese, not much make-up, very simple earrings. I was not at all nervous or anxious, I think I saw tension in some postures, or the set of some mouths. I'm sure we all believed, as we've been told by our doctors and all kinds of media that this annual ritual will save lives. I am a skeptic about statistics but these statistics convince me. I expected a negative result and that's what I got. For most there was a wait of five minutes or so while the the technician read the plates and then she came to say, "you may leave" -- the results were negative. For one or two it was "Come with me." I saw those women rise slowly, their lips pressed more tightly together.
"Early detection" is the phrase whether it's breast or prostate or colon cancer. Yes, it does save lives. But all these tests are expensive. Better expensive tests that are negative than the staggering expense of end of life care. This is partly on my mind because I've just had word of the death of one man I graduated from high school with, due to cancer and the diagnosis of untreatable lung cancer in another man in that same small class. At this age the deaths begin to add up. I can't make any comment about the now hot topic of healthcare reform, not based on these experiences. I AM glad Medicare pays for these exams, chances are I would skip them otherwise.
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