This is what happened during my breast exam



Don’t make jokes in airports. I think we’re all across that now, yeah? If not, there are signs everywhere to ram the point home: ‘Do not jest about bombs or knives or a terrorist packing your bags. It’s not amusing and we will arrest you.’

They should have those signs in doctors’ surgeries. Last month, I got myself into all sorts of trouble during a routine mammogram when I made a lame joke.

“Is there any chance you could be pregnant?” asked radiographer briskly as I stood shivering in my paper gown.

“Any chance?” I fake-laughed. “There’s always a chance! Hahaha… know….probably not…well, I guess…no….um…..”

I sort of trailed off at this point because there was no punch line and it wasn’t funny. She looked up from her clipboard, frowning. Over the next few minutes, we discussed in extreme detail the possibility of me being pregnant. Keen to get on with it, I offered to do a pregnancy test on the spot. Surely they kept spares for such situations? They didn’t.

And with that, I was sent on my way. “Have an ultrasound this time and come back when you know you’re definitely safe.”

So I had the ultrasound – made some excruciating small talk with the sonographer which included an in-depth discussion about children’s soccer and the inclement weather in her native Scotland – and slunk off.

Is there any conversation more awkward than the one you have during a medical procedure? What exactly should you talk about during a breast exam, a pap smear or a prostate check?

Small talk drains me at the best of times but there’s nothing quite like making chirpy chit chat with a stranger who is doing an extremely intimate test that has potentially life-changing consequences. My breast tests were routine and yet there’s nothing remotely routine about looking the prospect of cancer in the face while discussing how COLD it’s been lately. And the rain! And how about those ParaOlympics, hey? That’s a pretty necklace. Are you watching Puberty Blues? Plans for Christmas?

Like most women, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to make medical chit chat over the years and as a result, my own rules go like this:

1. Do not discuss anything too mentally taxing. Like the NDIS. Or Syria. Let your medical professional concentrate really, really hard on what they’re doing.

2. Do not raise controversial topics such as climate change denial, the state of modern feminism or Labor’s chances at the next election. See point 1.

What are you supposed to talk about when this is happening?

3. Do not discuss the hypothetical consequences of a bad test result. Even though many women love playing the hypothetical game, medical professionals clam up.


4. Do not joke about possible medical conditions. And remember: every joke you make will have been made 10000 times already.

That last one is hard because look, when some people get nervous (me), they joke to ease the tension. A few years ago,  when a male relative had a heart test, a tube was inserted in his groin and fed up into his heart so a diagnostic dye could be injected. Afterwards a young nurse had to stand there and apply pressure with a pad to the incision while the cut sealed, for half an hour. “I think it was her first time, as it was mine” he recalls. “After some awkwardness on both sides I think I relieved the tension a bit by asking her if this meant we were engaged…..she was a lot more relaxed after she stopped laughing. “

So is it awkward for the medical professionals too? One of my friends is a GP and I always call her while she’s doing pap smears. She calls it my pap radar and it’s a gift, truly. When I asked what she talks about during such intimate medical moments, she explained there are two approaches. “One is to crack a lame joke as you maneuver their legs into awkward positions about how this is their yoga session for the week. Or chat merrily away about something neutral- the prevalence of hairless bits these days is a popular topic. People are always keen to talk about that.”

The other approach is to use the opportunity to canvass any mental health concerns such as depression or relationship problems. “Sometimes it’s easier for both parties to talk about difficult issues when you’re not face-to-face but face-to-vagina. “

Interestingly, she also told me that breast checks are more tricky for small talk, “because you’re very close with no comfort of distance.  I usually use this time to give a practiced lecture about how to do a breast self examination.”

When I returned for my second attempt at a mammogram, I tried hard to play it straight. But as the radiographer pulled, squeezed and squashed my boob into the sandwich press-like machine, I blurted out, “Sorry you don’t have much to work with!” As she forced a smile and pretended not to have heard that one before, I persevered. “What’s easier for you, small or big boobs?” Pause. “They both present their challenges,” she replied evenly. “We also do this for men, though.” Right. That would totally give us something to talk about as I glanced down to see a pancake.

How do you make small talk in awkward situations?

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-MM Team