The lab technician didn’t really get my reference to Botticelli’s models as I lay supine on the butcher paper-lined vinyl table. I have never been an artist’s muse, and unless there are big changes to my line of work, this is certainly the closest I will come to it. Even the pink paper vest added to the effect. My attempt to cut my tension went nowhere, and the technician went straight to work pushing the ultrasound jelly around on my left breast.
The panic attack from the night before subsided by the time I fell asleep: what would be, would be. I couldn’t un-cancer anything, even if tried. But my imagination worked overtime, spinning different stories of the life ahead. That was the most frightening part: the fucking unknown that creeps in when a health-related red flag is raised.
I’m not a newbie to mammograms. I’ve been getting my brutal annual mammary smash since hitting the big four-zero. I am low risk: late onset of menstruation, two youthful pregnancies followed by four lengthy go-rounds nursing my infants. Even better, my spouse specializes in women’s health and knows breasts well. I figure he sort of watches out for things, even if he insists I’m not his patient.
Just this once, I had let my annual mammo wait an extra year. My procrastination — along with being fat and a maternal grandmother’s history of post-menopausal breast cancer — were my only risk factors. But my confidence waned the night before my diagnostic follow-up. I wondered: had I taken my boobs for granted?
My boobs have been a huge part of my journey. They have always been along for the ride. They’re the first thing I see when I look down at myself. They’re the first spot on my body to gain or lose weight. They put the jog in jogging. They’re the first to catch a coffee, salsa or popcorn spill (the last kernels are always in the cleavage). They created Mommy magic to soothe my crying infants and they’re the built-in referee when calling a truce with my spouse.
But back to the angst.
Four weeks earlier, I had finally gone in for the delayed mammo. I had left the imaging center incredibly demoralized, which is hard to admit for a woman who has given birth four times with all the bells and whistles before a small crowd (I never do anything important without my posse).
When I got the result two weeks later, they asked me to come back. I wasn’t too surprised. A trainee had been in charge of positioning the girls on the slab that day, and I had a feeling she wasn’t getting the job done. Blaming the trainee gave me peace of mind as I awaited the next step.
The night before my follow-up, I called on my posse to calm my nerves through sympathetic texts and boob humor. They cut my anxiety attack short. But it came barreling back when the tech happily announced I was her fourth diagnostic mammo of the day, and the other women had been able to go home without the follow-up ultrasound. Somehow, that statement convinced me I’d be spending my afternoon gooped up and topless on the ultrasound table.
Back to the Botticelli moment: the lights are dimmed and I’m halfway on my side, left shoulder back, arm above my head. Maybe it was more Matisse-esque? Maybe the ripped jeans I was wearing with my topless look didn’t suggest classical art. Fuck her for not taking AP Art History in high school — she still could have laughed.
There’s a brief break in the total silence when she says, “Sorry this is taking so long. I’m trying to locate all the spots seen on the mammo, I only see one and the other tech noted three of concern.” She left the room to review the films and consult the radiologist or other tech.
Inside, I’m thinking, “Three? What the hell? They really see three? I feel nothing.”
Suddenly I can’t remember which breast was harder to nurse from, which side had the wrinkled nipple, which boob had gotten such a blow from my bike accident 30 years ago that the bruise lasted three months. Shit, shit, shit. I don’t want to take my boobs for granted. I love my boobs! I’d give my boobs up if I had to, though, because I love my children and my life far more than I love my boobs.
The stream of boob consciousness went on and on: how do they save nipples for reconstruction? I heard the drains are the hardest part of the mastectomy recovery. Did you know it takes multiple appointments to fill your new boobs after reconstruction? Maybe I shouldn’t get reconstruction. Wow, what would that look like on me?
Finally, the tech came back and continued to ultrasound me for another five hours (okay, I admit, it was a few minutes). The flood of thoughts subsided. After one more chat with the radiologist, she returned and said, “everything looks okay, we just want to recheck in six months.” She passed me a paper towel, presumably to wipe off my goopy left boob, and disappeared. Pretty anti-climactic, eh?
The whole situation left me emotionally exhausted for a few days. And I felt guilty for feeling exhausted, for being so panicked. Last week, a letter arrived from my primary care physician describing a benign cyst six centimeters from my left nipple. I will indeed follow up. Being diagnosed with breast cancer changes your life, and no one is completely safe. But I’m relieved it wasn’t me, at least not this time.
Don’t take your boobs for granted. Revisit your very own boob trivia; we all have stories. If you are so inclined, enjoy your ta-tas as much as possible. Also, know your risk factors, do your breast self-exams and get annual mammograms when you reach that age.
And make sure you have access to your baseline results (from your first mammogram) for future reference, especially if you tend to have dense breast tissue, which helps new medical providers know what’s normal for you.
Lastly, build a support posse. We all need people to turn to when we’re scared, irrational or not.