Breasts. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with mine. Usually it’s a casual indifference that keeps me from paying much thought to them. I don’t generally feel “womanly”.
My life as a steamfitter? Maybe. Climbing in ceilings, reaching under freezers, carrying toolbags, and the boobage gets short shrift.
I switched healthcare providers this past January. So, in doing that, I scheduled appointments to get established with my new doctors.
“When was your last mammogram?”
“Do you do self-breast exams?”
“Um, I never think about doing it?” She gave me a stern look. I blushed.
So a month later there I was, standing in front of a weird looking machine while a woman I didn’t know, (she didn’t even buy me dinner first), unceremoniously arranged my breasts on top of a glass plate.
“Hold your breath.”
“Oops, we didn’t get enough that time, we need to get up more by your armpit. Hold your breath.”
The next day, a phone call. “We want you to come back for another mammogram, we just need to look more closely at a couple things.”
” Tuesday.” (It was Friday.)
So, I began to worry. Why did they call back so soon? It must be something bad, right? They sure got me back in quickly.
Tuesday comes. “Hold your breath.” This time many more pictures, way up high.
Wednesday morning: “We want you to come in for a biopsy, we saw some suspicious calcifications.”
Now I was getting apprehensive. I was acutely aware of my breasts. I am not a terribly feminine person,in general. I started imagining what my life would be like without them. Would it be easier at work?
The day of the biopsy arrives. Ex-girlfriend insists on going. “How are you feeling about all this?”
“Um, I dunno. I’m not really thinking about it yet, there’s no point in worrying before I know if something is actually wrong.”
But I was a little worried, also weirdly detached.
“You’re going to be numbed up. There will be a woman at your side the whole time, it’ll take about 45 minutes. You’ll feel the first needle with the painkillers, and then after that you shouldn’t feel anything.”
I didn’t feel anything. I felt outside myself. It felt surreal.
Home. Bleeding. Bleeding a lot. Soaking through bandages. I entertain the thought of taping a maxi-pad to my chest. I don’t. Bleeding stops eventually.
Then the phone call five days later. “Are you someplace where you can talk for a few minutes?”
A long conversation. The words “lobular carcinoma in situ” became part of my vocabulary. LCIS for short. Scary diagnosis. Not actually “cancer” per se, but makes me very high risk. “what you decide to do will depend somewhat on your family history, we’ll schedule you an appointment with a surgeon.”
Now panic mode sets in. A surgeon. I’m having visions of the women I’ve seen at music festivals, rocking mastectomy scars, I think of the courageous women who get beautiful tattoos all over their chests. My mind is reeling with thoughts.
“Is there any family history?” I think back as far as I can remember, none of my mother’s relatives had breast cancer.
“How about on your father’s side?”
Oh, crap. My father’s side counts? I call my aunt Carol. “Yes, two of your father’s aunts had breast cancer”.
I decide to start taking pictures of my breasts, just in case they were going to cease to exist. I took many, many low-key photos. Suddenly I was hit with the realization that I kind of liked my breasts, and the life-long ambivalence went away. I remembered all the angst as a teenager, wishing they were larger, that they had developed earlier. And then sort of a neutrality towards them as my feminism bloomed. Then when I started working construction, they almost seemed a hinderance.
You know what? They’re pretty darned okay, they’re part of me, and life is what it is.
Meeting with the surgeon comes. “So, my colleagues and I believe that there’s a lot of fear and overkill when it comes to breast cancer. Years ago, with your diagnosis of LCIS, a bilateral mastectomy would have been recommended. With your family history, since your grandmother didn’t have it, nor your father’s sister, I believe you’re at the low-end of the high-risk spectrum. I recommend very close monitoring, mammograms every six months, and I will write you a referral to our high-risk breast clinic.”
Phew. I can handle that.
Now, I just have to start remembering to feel myself up.