I felt a lump in my right breast one morning. My then-boyfriend, now-husband Chris was in the shower. The light blue of the early light shone through the white blinds of the large window overhead. I stretched and, without purpose, my finger poked my breast. It touched not soft, pliable skin but a hard, definite mass. I began to feel the area more earnestly, more vigorously, to confirm my suspicion and look for anything else that may be hiding.
The bathroom door opened, and my exploring fingers dropped to the mattress. Chris’s silhouette was dark against the harsh light that flowed out from behind him. He climbed back in bed, droplets of water still clinging to his chest, and kissed me softly on the mouth. I smiled and said, “My turn.” I swung my feet to the floor and went into the bathroom, closing the door behind me.
As I continued to press the lump with my finger throughout my shower, I considered my situation. Breast cancer was genetic—this I knew—especially when it was in your maternal bloodline. My mother had cysts in her breast before. She had biopsies before. Nothing was ever malignant. I heard that breast cancer could skip a generation. I was 23 years old, a year out of college and a year without health insurance. I had spent the last year working small jobs as a receptionist and a waitress. I just started a new desk job, but the insurance was expensive and I had to wait a while before I could sign up for it. I had been going to Planned Parenthood for checkups and birth control for the last year. I decided to wait and see what they said at my annual exam in six months.
That evening, in the quiet of our apartment, I told Chris that I had felt something in my breast. I took his hand and showed him where the lump was. He tapped it a few times with his finger, then said gently and genially, “It could be a lot of things. It’s probably nothing.”
“Yeah. I’m sure it’s nothing,” I replied.
I didn’t mention it to my family. I didn’t mention it to Chris again. But every morning and every night, when I lay in bed, I pushed my finger into my breast over and over again.
When my grandmother finally went to the doctor and she was diagnosed with cancer, they explained that they needed to cut off her breast to keep the cancer from spreading. “If it has to come off, then take it off,” she told the doctor. So they took it off. If she had any negative feelings about this prognosis, she didn’t let on. There was no use crying or throwing a fit. It had to be done, so she did it.
When I finally went to the doctor and got my lump looked at, and they told me I needed a mammogram, I scheduled a mammogram. And when they told me the mammogram was inconclusive and that I needed a biopsy, I scheduled a biopsy. I went to my appointments and I did what they told me to do.
And then I went home and cried, as I imagine my grandmother did.
Perhaps she cried sitting up in bed in the middle of the night when my grandfather was sleeping. Perhaps she cried over the kitchen sink washing dishes as he was outside tending his garden. Though she had a strong and loving marriage, I suspect she mourned privately. She wasn’t vain and she wasn’t weak, and I would never imagine that my grandfather would accuse her of such characteristics if she cried in front of him. But I suspect she didn’t. Because I, too, cried in the shower, in the car, anywhere I was alone.
After her surgery, my grandmother had a padded bra so it appeared that she still had both breasts, but I’m sure when she bathed or undressed, it would take her a second to face herself in the mirror. The scar on my breast left by my biopsy made me feel as though I was diseased or perhaps no longer a whole woman. My breast was imperfect, mutilated. And as I looked at it in the mirror, the fresh wound, I was face to face with my mortality and wondered if this was how my grandmother felt.
*When were you faced with a scary medical situation? Did you avoid it? How did you feel once you learned what it was? Get our your timer and write.*