Part I in a two-part essay
It’s all about boobs. From about age 11 on. I remember the day I wore my first bra to school in the fifth grade. I was wearing a white OP shirt with a palm frond design across my left shoulder. No one had instructed me that you do not wear a white bra under a white shirt. I remember feeling how hot my cheeks were when several boys brought this fact into crystal clarity. Sitting at the cafeteria table, with them cackling at my back, I tried as hard as I could to fold my body into some fleshy origami. Trying to compact myself into anonymity. It was not a mistake I repeated.
And then, by some incomprehensible trick, in the next few years, breasts became less of an embarrassment and more of an asset. Before if you had them, you stuck out and you didn’t like it, now if you didn’t have them to stick out, you made no impression, and that was even worse. We wore strapless prom dresses, proudly displaying our cleavage. Then, we advanced even further: they became blasé. All of the sudden, there you were in college, rummaging through racks in Victoria’s Secret, comparing deals with friends. And this most private of garments was discussed and compared with the same reverence as the state of a used text in the college bookstore. It was nothing.
A few more years tumbled by and many of us had moved forward into Grown Up Territory. We got married. Real Jobs. Bought hefty items that would take years to pay off. And toyed with the idea of babies. And if we weren’t yet there, others brought up the idea themselves. Everyone, it seemed, was in a hurry to get us pregnant. I remember an evening out with my in-laws when my mother-in-law casually asked during dinner, “are you going to nurse”? Mind you, no one had mentioned babies and I wasn’t pregnant. It was out of nowhere. I had a few glasses of wine in me, so said, “Why? Are you thirsty?” as a joke. I won’t even pretend that went over well. Another lesson learned.
And once I actually was pregnant, I was amazed how often I’d get that very same question from strangers – are you going to nurse? It’s a pretty private decision and time in a woman’s life. And people ask it like it’s nothing. So nonchalantly. As if asking “are you going to have an appetizer?” But really, it’s a whole different question, one that is actually, “are you going to produce milk and feed your baby via your breasts?” Nothing to it. It’s natural. Done for years. Even crack whores can do it. And you’re no crack whore, you assure yourself. So imagine my surprise when it came down to nursing and I learned one of the most difficult lessons: nursing is not second nature. And it’s not easy. And if you can’t easily do it, it can easily be your undoing.
I spent so many hours trying to get my supply to come in, to sustain it and to learn the art of nursing. And many more hours berating myself for not being able to do something that should have been so easy, so I thought. And then, once that finally fell into place, it again became all about my boobs. I felt as if the whole world revolved around my boobs. Not that the fact that they were as big has the pontoons that keep airplanes afloat even entered into the reason why. I grew to resent them in a way. The baby relied on me. My husband relied on me. Breast is best. Right? I was annoyed that I couldn’t just take a night off without jeopardizing this mediocre supply that I’d worked so hard to generate. I remember the guilt I felt when I wanted to quit. And then, the relief when I did. And you know what? The world didn’t end and I wasn’t turned in for being a negligent parent.
And life went on. And my breasts were right there with me. But one day I felt like I had been kicked the chest. I told my husband exactly that – that I was sore and maybe it was from the baby kicking against me when I’d picked her up earlier in the day. But as the soreness continued and I massaged the area a bit I felt my cheeks burn like they did so many years ago when my white bra betrayed me. A lump. Me. My breast. A lump. Oh God. I checked over and over frantically, as if I was looking for a set of missing keys. As if it I was somehow mistaken.
A few days later, maybe as little as a week, I went for my annual visit with my OB/Gyn, and she felt it, too. And kept feeling it. I remember thinking, “Wow, how long are you going to be feeling me up? Because at this point, I think we’re dating.”
I was given the name of a breast surgeon and sent for a mammogram. I was in my twenties. With a baby. I’d just started using my breasts, you know? It’s like I was back in elementary school and I’d finally gotten an Atari but all I could play was Super Breakout. What the hell? What do you mean there’s no Donkey Kong for me?
When I got to the breast surgeon’s office, it was pink. Pink. PINK. The walls were covered with inspirational art, macramé done by survivors, posters praising early detection. And there were the women, their heads covered in scarves or tasteful wigs. And it scared the shit out of me. I sat in a corner, looking at my lap, both wanting desperately to have my name called and frantically hoping I’d never hear my name called. I was eventually shown to an exam room and given one of those demeaning hospital gowns and told, “take off your shirt and put this on open to the front.” I undressed and dressed as quickly as I could, so as not to have that awkward moment of being half-dressed when the doctor opened the door. Not that it mattered, she was going to open the gown anyway. After taking my family history, the doctor “appreciated” my lump and said she was concerned. Great. My mother’s sister is a breast cancer survivor. Red flag. All I could do was lock myself in the bathroom and feel that Jordan Almond-sized lump and think is this it? Am I going to be one of those women who spends her life in pink waiting rooms?
But to make a long story short: I was lucky. The mammogram, sonogram and MRI confirmed that I’m just lumpy. In fact, it seems over the years I’ve become quite the overachiever – I’ve acquired several more lumps. But so far, I’m fine. I’ve always felt so fortunate for being so, well, fortunate. Because I keep seeing others who haven’t been so lucky. I’ve always felt like I’ve dodged such a bullet. Like I needed to do some sort of good deed to repay my luck.
A few years ago I tentatively floated the idea of walking in one of the breast walks with some relatives, but no one else wanted to walk, so I let the idea die for a while. It always nagged at me, but I never did anything but talk about it. And then, serendipitously, one day after talking about it with a friend, a brochure arrived in my mailbox from Susan G. Komen for the Cure. 60 miles. Who would want to do that? Who could do that? My friend thought she could. And signed up. And started a team. And then the pressure was on.
Stay tuned for part II of this essay on Friday, here on Osmosis