A Rich Family History

Sarah McMahon
4 min readMay 11

[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…

Sarah McMahon

Blogger | Poet | Freelancer | Ultra Runner IG: @mcmountain email: sarahrose.writer@gmail.com