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Bosom buddies share a special sisterhood during longest hours of the year

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They are the most dreaded hours of the year for most women, but the annual breast check ritual can also bring the greatest relief,  writes Madonna King

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The doctor’s hands are warm, but it didn’t make the small talk any easier. She’s rubbing my breasts, over and over and over, like she might have missed something the first time.

As far as bedside manner goes, Dr Letitia is ace. She’s warm. A huge smile. So comforting. It’s just her bloody hands that are unnerving.

“All good so far. You’ll have a 15 minute break, and then you’ll have a mammogram,’’ she says. Another electric smile, and she bids me farewell.

Out in the waiting room, there are 30 others just like me. Female. Topless. All wearing a white bathrobe, with purple piping.

Why the purple I think? Isn’t pink the colour for breast cancer awareness? But on this day – yesterday – at the Wesley Breast Clinic in Brisbane, purple was the omnipresent reminder of why this room was brimming with women.

And Dr Letitia is right. The mammogram was just 15 minutes away. As Hilary pushed and prodded my breasts into the right position, I wondered whether the machine had a name. It was a bit like a big drunken robot, with groping hands.

Ouch. Its single job is to squeeze breasts as hard as it can, so a picture or film can be taken of the stuff inside; mainly fat but there’s lymph nodes and maybe tendons and other stuff too.

And just when both breasts are screaming for a good rest, it needs to be done from another angle.

Hiliary makes it easier. She first saw me topless about nine years ago, in this same room, as her daughter was finishing school and spreading her wings. Now my eldest daughter is doing the same. Something in common. Something to talk about, half-naked, while my breasts are being squeezed by Robot Boy.

“Surely they can invent something that isn’t modelled on a giant sandwich press,’’ my lovely friend emailed. So true! If men needed annual mammograms it wouldn’t be anything like this.

Hiliary’s daughter is now overseas, but she shows me the light in this pandemic. They talk for three or four hours every Sunday, even cooking online.

And she’s wrapped her daughter’s presents and will open them together and online on Christmas Day. That way her daughter will be gifted the surprise of them being unwrapped.

I wish I was a bit more like Hilary. My daughters might think that too… “I see her more than I’d see her if she was here,’’ she says.

Back in the waiting room, no-one talks, but the sense of sisterhood is palpable. Everyone is rooting for everyone else. No-one wants cancer today, three weeks out from Christmas.

No-one wants cancer any day, but every day 55 women are diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s 20,000 mothers and sisters and grandmothers and daughters each year.

The Christmas tree in the corner is bulging with purple baubles. I wonder what’s happened to the pink?

The only blokes in the room are on the big screen in the corner, playing cricket. England has won the toss and elected to bat. And then by the time I’m called for a second mammogram – they just want to have a closer look at something – England is reeling with the Aussies taking five early wickets.

You recognise other women, in the same state of undress, waiting for the same long list of tests. Many you’ve come across them at work, in power suits and high heels, and it just doesn’t seem the right time to chat. So you smile, and we all return to scrolling our smartphone screens like the teen girls waiting for us at home.

Time drags on. Young mothers arrange for someone to pick their children up. One hour becomes two. And then two hours become three. Scrolling Facebook I see a friend also went through this tortuous process a couple of weeks ago. She’d given herself a mammogram for her birthday. Go figure.

But a few days later, she got a call from Breast Screen. They’d found something. More tests, and then finally, the verdict. “See you in two years,’’ the doctor told her. “Best words,’’ she wrote.

How many of us, in this room now, will get those words?

More time passes. I send up a prayer for the police officer allegedly ploughed down by a bloke in a stolen Mercedes. An omicron variant has been found in Queensland. Channel Seven changes its commentators, as England goes 5/97.

This wait truly is longer than a five day test. 6/112. 7/118. 8/122. Seriously, no-one is watching it. I hear something about the tough batting, but know others in this room are doing it tougher than the English.

The woman next to me was diagnosed three years ago. She’s looking for her annual clearance today. How lucky are we, she says, and she’s right. The Wesley Breast Clinic has world class facilities, and world class clinicians. “They caught mine when it was almost too tiny to see.’’ And she’s back living life to the fullest.

The rain sets in, and even the blokes on the television screen disappear.

Good luck. Good luck. It’s the only phrase repeated all day; words of support just uttered as the next woman is given a clearance.

Four hours pass, and this time it’s an ultrasound. For men, and the uninitiated, a warm glue is spread over your breasts and a small tractor, this time driven by Maria, runs over them repeatedly.

Maria’s done her job at the Wesley for 15 years. As professional as you could possibly imagine. Her daughter’s about to be married in Melbourne. God, I hope the borders stay open to allow her to see that. Every Mum deserves that.

“You know if blokes had to get a mammogram they’d find a way of doing it in 10 minutes,’’ one woman quipped to a friend. No way, I thought. If they were like my hubby they’d only try it once – and never do it again!

Back to the waiting room. And then back to Dr Letitia. So far, it’s looking good. But there needs to be one more check. I think this time it’s by a radiologist.

Thirty minutes later, Dr Letitia is playing Santa Claus. See you in a year, she says. And her smile is my Christmas present.

As I leave, there’s only three women left. And I’m hoping like hell that they get the same Christmas gift.

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