We sit, eyes downcast, as if we’ve done something wrong. Like bad puppies that have chewed on one of each pair of shoes, awaiting a stern word and a soft paddle on the rump with a rolled up newspaper. But we’re not bad, we just have boobs. And, oh, those boobs – garner-ers of so much societal attention, which come in so many sizes, shapes, and colors. They unify us now, as together we anticipate having them handled, mashed and squished. And not for fun. No, today we will volunteer to be tortured. Today we will allow technicians to flatten them, ostensibly to save them.
We look like ourselves in the crowded outside waiting room. Our hair, our clothes, our idiosyncrasies make us unique out here. Once we’re ushered into the inner sanctum, though, we are only so many body parts to be scanned. Stripped bare from the waist up and clad in cornflower blue demi-gowns that tie loosely in the front for easy access to the appendages in question. Why, I wonder, are the “shmates” not in the ubiquitous breast-cancer-busting pink? We do decidedly not want to be blue, especially not here. We sit silently, as if in a house of worship; as if we are all praying for good results, scanning doctor office copies of Better Homes & Gardens in which we have no interest. We are just passing the time until it’s our turn.
The center tries to assuage our anticipatory tension. It’s so spa-like, you’d think we were awaiting full body massages. The wall fountains gurgle gently, and generic lavender and blue Monet wannabes cling to the walls like we cling to hope. Soft rock means to soothe us, but as Boy George asks, “Do you really want to hurt me?” I think, how ironic for a bunch of women about to have their boobs pancaked in a mechanical vice grip.
Back here, without underwire, we are all loose and floppy. Or our breasts are, anyway. The “girls,” at least my girls, are happy to be free. I wish I could always parade them around with such wanton abandon. We all hug our blue cover-ups, and what they’re covering up, tightly to our chests as if not quite trustful of the flimsy ties, and as if we could protect ourselves from what the scans might reveal.
The controversy and conflict surrounding this issue – the mammogram, early detection, false positives, lumpectomy, mastectomy, BRAC gene testing, prophylactic mastectomy, reconstruction, chemo, and radiation – are a highly charged conundrum. How is it that an ailment so studied and publicized persists so stubbornly? I know far too many impacted women. am lost in these thoughts, clutching myself even closer, when I hear: “Ms. Lowman?”
My technician disconcerts me. They are usually as warm and comforting as the waiting room, but she seems fidgety, ill at ease, and well… new. She is trying hard but is tentative, so I feel some odd obligation to comfort her, so I try to be super cooperative and chipper. She asks for my birthdate to confirm that these are, indeed, the right boobs and dons breast-cancer pink gloves (“There’s the pink,” I think). I further fluster her by asking if they’re latex, to which I am allergic. She doesn’t know, but I decide the threat of hives is a small price to pay for the potential of early cancer detection. She instructs me to face the plate protruding from the large T-Rex of a machine.
“Drop the right shoulder of your gown.” No one has said anything like that to me since, well, my last mammogram.
Now even more tentative for fear of killing me with latex, she gently pushes me flush with the machine’s bottom plate so that my ribs feel just short of uncomfortable and manually lifts and tugs at my small right breast so that it lies fully on the plate. She holds it down in place as the top plate descends. At contact I suck a deep breath in, bracing myself, and the plate continues down even though it surely feels to me like I’ve gone beyond pancake to crepe. Crap. And it squeezes some more.
“Don’t breathe.” She says.
“Don’t worry,” I think.
She repeats the fun on the left side and then goes in for side boob. My hand drapes awkwardly over the monster in a mangled yoga pose. I try not to think about the radiation as she runs behind a shield to take the picture and I hold my breath again.
It’s actually over quickly. I can’t have been in the room for more than ten minutes. I pass by the waiting women en route back to the small changing room. I feel a little sorry to be done whilst they still sit. But I sense camaraderie too. hey’re wistful, hopeful, and jealous that I’m walking out, but they wish me well. We all wish each other well.
We are in this together, whether we have had breast cancer or not. We all know someone who has had to return for another scan; for an ultrasound; for an MRI, a needle biopsy, or for the news of a malignancy. We know women who have had various permutations of their breasts removed or radiated. As part of a desperate defense or a preemptory offense. We have run for, walked for, biked for, baked for, and knit for women who have endured nausea, exhaustion, and hair loss while hoping the what surely will be looked back at one day as the medieval torture of chemo would find and kill every single rogue cancer cell in their body. And we have buried friends and family – too early, too often – every single one of them, no matter their age. We and our boobs are in this together.
I don’t keep my eyes down as I walk past them. I look each woman in the eye and smile and nod. I wish each of them healthy breasts, and hope it will not be long before the result, “NORMAL” is the new normal.