From Iceland — Do Shit: Get Checked For Cancer

Do Shit: Get Checked For Cancer

Published July 4, 2024

Do Shit: Get Checked For Cancer
Photo by
Catharine Fulton/The Reykjavík Grapevine

An Útlendingur’s ongoing guide to getting shit done

It’s often touted as rude to ask a lady her age, but nobody asked and I’m not embarrassed. Though my youthful aura belies my age, I’m going to be 40 this year — on July 26, to be exact (send presents and well-wishes to GV HQ).

My impending milestone birthday was brought to the fore in recent weeks when a ping resonated from my phone, alerting me to a new message in my inbox. I was being invited for my first breast cancer screening!

A report from the Icelandic Cancer Societyrevealed that just 52% of those invited for cancer screenings make appointments and undergo screening. Sadly, women of foreign origin are 39% less likely than Icelanders to attend screening.

There are two regular cancer screenings that women living in Iceland are invited to, depending on their age. Cervical cancer screening is performed every three years for those aged 23 to 29 and those between 30 and 59 are invited every five years. One more screening is performed between the ages of 60 and 64, at which point you’re free to pull up your panties for the last time, never again having to hoist your legs into stirrups and brace for the icy shock of the speculum.

Breast cancer screening, however, only begins once a person turns (or is about to turn) 40 and is then a biennial event until the age of 74.

A report from Krabbameinsfélagið (the Icelandic Cancer Society) released earlier this year revealed that just 52% of those invited for cancer screenings make appointments and undergo screening. Sadly, women of foreign origin are 39% less likely than Icelanders to attend screening. The society chalks up the low attendance to long wait times, stress surrounding the screenings and the price. Cervical cancer screenings on invitation cost 500 ISK, but breast cancer screening comes with a 6.098 ISK price tag.

It can be daunting to navigate the medical system as an immigrant — hell, I’ve been here 15 years and I detest having to make doctor’s appointments. But invitations for cervical and breast cancer screening are very straightforward and, having now attended both, they’re nothing to be stressed or confused about. Aside from the phenomenal midwives I encountered during my pregnancies, the most calm, professional and disarming medical professionals I’ve encountered in Iceland have been those conducting cancer screenings.

As a cancer survivor, I also understand the stress that comes with getting tested. It’s as if the act of going for testing suddenly awakens your mind to the possibility of cancer growing in your body. But, as the cancer society also notes, regular screening increases the chances of any disease being detected early when it’s potentially easier to treat.

How does it screening happen?

The invitee receives a notification through with instructions about booking their appointment. Cervical cancer screenings are performed in one’s local Heilsugæslan, but breast cancer screening is performed in hospital mammography centres. In Reykjavík, that’s at the Brjóstamiðstöð (breast centre) on Eiríksgata, while those living in the North are directed to Akureyri Hospital. The invitation to breast cancer screening — which arrives in Icelandic, English and Polish — also provides a phone number for those wishing to arrange screening in other parts of the country.

One must call their breast centre of choice to book a time. I conducted my call in English to get the full immigrant experience (JK, I’m one of those bad immigrants who baulks at conducting most tasks in Icelandic) and, though the the centre was booking into September at the time of my mid-June call, there just happened to be an opening for the very next day.

So, the next day, I strolled into the centre, typed my kennitala into one of three computer screens in the initial waiting area, paid the fee (which hurt more than the mammogram that followed) and made my way to another waiting room on the third floor. There, four doors were clearly marked as occupied by a glowing red light above each one. When one light turned green, that was my cue to enter.

Now inside a changing area facing another door and its own red light, I followed the instructions on the wall to disrobe from the waist up. There are no gowns provided, so when my light turned green I had a millisecond of panic that I’d throw open the door, jubilantly alfresco breasts swinging to and fro, into a Just For Laughs Gags scene of Japanese business men sitting around a boardroom table, startled by my intrusion.

That, of course, didn’t happen and instead I was calmly greeted by two young technicians in a dim room who directed me to approach the mammography machine and talked me through the entire procedure, asking permission to touch my body in order to position my breasts on the plates of the machine for imaging.

Just 12 minutes after I entered the building, I was dressed and back outside to go about my day.

Though the technicians said my results could take up to three weeks to land in my inbox, it was just a week later that another ping resonated from my phone. My results were in and no signs of cancer were detected.

Please, ladies, go get tested.

Follow the Grapevine’s Do Shit series to collect tips and tricks for navigating life and bureaucracy in Iceland.

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