I am back home in North Carolina for a month to take care of a ton of medical appointments – dentist, endocrinologist, primary care, psychiatrist, dermatologist and, of course, my annual mammogram scan.
Of all of these appointments, the mammogram has to be the hardest.
As most of you know, my mom died from breast cancer after living for nearly 30 years with it. So of course I’m nervous.
The entire procedure feels surreal – I am given a pink gown that unties in the front. It seems like everything in the building is pink, a pukey mauve shade – the walls, the abstract pictures, the gowns. Who assigned this color as the motif for women, for breast cancer? It feels like an attempt to soften the grotesque.
And then I wait, along with three other women my age, in a small room, where we attempt to distract ourselves from the dingy surroundings, the ghastly lighting, the yellowing plants, the outdated magazines, and most of all, the fear.
We avoid one another’s eyes for that reason.
Because we each have a story, a history, that somehow has as its central subject – cancer.
We have each asked ourselves what brings us here: heredity, bad habits like smoking or eating processed foods, the fertilizers in our yards, the random toxicity of our environment.
Each of these things seem to be insidious threats to our core, our breasts, our blood.
After a while they call my name and I try to be nonchalant and casual. I chat with the technician as she unties my gown. She apologizes for her cold hands as she gently takes my right breast and presses it into the cold glass. I look down and see the absurd flatness, a breast was never meant to look like that, a splayed starfish out of water.
She presses a button that lowers a vise-like panel down onto my breast, pressing it further and further against the glass slab. I grab the handle and try to relax my shoulder and then I take a deep breath while she takes the images – counting 1 through 6 – a 3D portrait of my poor little boob.
Such microscopic scrutiny of the little thing, what did it ever do to warrant such indignity?
And it’s hard not to wonder at this: why this cancer threat is in my breasts, of all the places in the body?
This wonderful part of me – this beautiful curve of me, that looks so nice in form-fitting sweaters. This soft part that says I am a woman. These vessels through which I nursed my babies, this part of me that is both beautiful and functional in some miraculous way. Of me and yet not. A mystery.
And I wonder at the estrogen that has created me to look like I do – female and fertile – it is at once a magical elixir and a poisoned substance – too little and I won’t reproduce, too much and I may grow deadly black tumors.
The woman at the radiology clinic is so great – she goes about her job assuredly but with a light compassion that puts me at ease. She’s trying in her way to make me feel like this unnatural procedure is somehow normal, everyday.
She tells me about her recent bout with varicose veins, how painful the surgery on them was. Ah, these things we share, we women share – reports on our breasts, our veins, our female organs.
My breasts have been a source of pride in the context of my physical self, but I also fear them. I fear what they hide in their dense, mysterious tissue. They are ticking time bombs, almost like a curse, some unfair price we women have to pay for our lives.
And every year I dutifully return to this clinic, to set my mind at ease, and still I wonder: am I really clear? Did the scan really see everything within the shadows, in the dark areas in my chest?
Or am I living with a false sense of security, that I am free and clear of the cancer that riddled my mother?
And as days go by I will push that scary thought away, and try to re-integrate my breasts with the rest of me, as a whole, a beautiful self, until next year when I come back here.
And I only hope that between now and then the nodes in my chest will be silent and good and not give me any cause to doubt or be fearful.
And in the days between now and then I will try not to worry.