Wednesday, October 19, 2011


I have been thinking a lot lately about breasts. A few months ago, at the start of the school year, I bought my ten-year old daughter her first training bra. Part of me worried that her "buds," as they are called these days, were a bad sign of excessive milk hormones. Ten seemed young to me for breasts, or any other signs of puberty. But for today's girl, it is normal. Beyond this slight concern, part of me also felt pride. In what? In seeing her grow up, certainly, but also, I think, in seeing that she seems to have inherited at least that part of my shape. I have never been an especially sexy or conventionally attractive girl -- never had the long limbs, indented waist, or overall skinniness of contemporary ideals. But I always had decent boobs. Of course, lately, they have been changing. When I was young, they were a perfect C. Then, after two pregnancies and two combined years of breastfeeding, I thought -- as books told me -- they might get smaller. But, no, they grew, to double Ds, without the rest of my body getting bigger. Rather than growing out, or up, I think they began to spread and descend. Soon, I feared, they'd hit the stomach level one sees in older women. So, I partly looked to my daughter as the promise of youth. And I liked sharing the experience of being people with boobs with her -- like when she confided in me that they hurt when she bumped them into things, or told me which other girls were sporting bras in class.

Recently, I had breasts on my mind for a different reason. For the first time, I got a call back on my mammogram. Two weeks after my annual exam, I had to go back, but I turned left to diagnostics instead of right, where the baseline mammograms go. Once in the new space, I felt immediately pathologized. To get to the locker room, I had to be escorted by a volunteer (apparently those of us in the suspicious boob category can't figure out how to walk down a hall anymore). My volunteer was very nice, almost too nice. After showing me where I could stow my things and where to wait, she announced, "I'm a hugger" and offered me one. I accepted, to be polite. But I figured the hug meant I must be dying. It did not help that it was national breast cancer awareness month and everywhere I turned there were pink ribbons!

After three hours of getting additional mammograms and ultrasounds, my doctors still could not determine whether what they saw was cancerous. There were new calcifications and they were "massing" but they hid in my now overly large boobs from the ultrasound. So, we scheduled a biopsy. Another two weeks. Once there, I realized that my focus on the diagnosis had put me in denial about the biopsy itself -- a more elaborate surgical procedure than I had realized. This time, I got taken by another volunteer -- not a hugger -- to an even further locker room. Laying on a bed with my breast hanging through a hole, another mammogram guided the surgeon to vacuum out some material to test. With a small incision and a big bandage, and the instruction to sleep in a sports bra for a day, and avoid any blood thinners, I was left pondering what it would mean to have my breast cut open, even partially, or, in the worst case, removed altogether.

Afterwards, while waiting for results, I went to get my haircut. Allure magazine had a special article on breast reconstruction. Pictures of various women showed different post-surgical solutions, ranging from full blown implants to insertions of fat from the belly into the breast. Intellectually, I thought that all that mattered was my health, and my being around for my family, but, gee, when I saw the tattooed nipples, I felt some deep pangs of fear about losing that part of me that had been so central to my sexuality, my maternity, my understanding of what clothes looked good on me. And I worried that if I lost my breasts or they were perceived as sick in any way, it would ruin my daughter's pleasure in hers.

Lucky for me, the biopsy found only benign material. But now I am pathologized. I have to go back in six months, so they can see . . what? whether the non-cancerous stuff suddenly changed into cancerous stuff? or that there is more non-cancerous stuff? Weirdly, the doctor put some kind of chip in my breast, a signpost that will show future surgeons where the biopsy was. Sort of a "keep off the grass" for radiologists. I am told it will not show up in airport scanners -- something I had not considered, but now will wonder about endlessly.

I'll never look at my breasts the same way again.