I had a mammogram yesterday.
It was thrilling, really. There’s nothing quite like having a grumpy sixty-year-old woman (with exceptionally cold hands) heave your breasts onto a metal slab before crushing them (and your collarbone) in a machine that looks like it was designed to compact small foreign cars. Honestly, it’s not THAT bad, but it certainly doesn’t rank high on the list desirable self-care.
This wasn’t my first ride on the squishometer.
I had my first mammogram at twenty-nine. I was nursing my newborn son at the time (not, exactly at the time, duh.) so it was particularly enjoyable for all concerned.
I had another one at thirty-two. And another at thirty-five.
That time they found something. A “mass,” which is a very small word for either a very large problem or nothing at all. In my case, it was the latter. They did a biopsy to confirm. A biopsy is supposed to be no big deal – that’s what the doctor said. “No big deal. We take a little needle and draw out a little tissue, give you a band-aid and you’re on your way.”
Now, maybe it’s because I’d just given birth to premature twins, or because my mother had just dropped dead in a restaurant, or because I’d spent the previous night in the ER again, with a gallbladder that needed to come out but, like me, was stuck waiting for the results of this biopsy – whatever the reason, that was not my experience.
I remember a large lady with a purple Sharpie drawing arrows on my chest. For some reason, she wrote “THIS ONE” on one breast and “NOT THIS ONE” on the other. Let’s just say that didn’t inspire confidence. I remember a giant syringe straight out of a costume box labeled “Mad Scientist,” with a five-inch needle no smaller around than a coat hanger. I don’t remember pain, but I remember crying for my mother anyway – thinking if there was one thing she would have understood it would have been this.
When I was twelve years old my mother had both of her breasts removed. She was forty-one years old. Cancer showed up in that first mammogram as a constellation of tiny masses in each breast. She broke the news to me with forced jubilance, “I’m finally getting that boob job and my insurance is gonna pay!” Reconstructive surgery was still considered a modern miracle – something utterly unavailable when her own mother had a mastectomy twenty years before.
My mammogram yesterday was different than the others I’d had before. For one thing, I didn’t need some complicated pre-authorization outlining my family history and the need for early screening. I’m forty now. I can waltz my boobs in to get squished every year as I please. But I’d be lying if I said that was the only difference. This year, I’ve hit my first mother milestone.
My mother was exactly my age when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had an eleven-year-old. I have an almost eleven-year-old.
They say that when you lose a parent, their age becomes fixed in your mind as an indelible goal line beyond which everything is else just overtime. I wonder if it’s the same with illness.
As I stood in that freezing exam room yesterday stumbling through the tech’s questions (T: Were you lying down for the biopsy? Me: I don’t know. T: Oh, you’d remember. Me: You might be surprised.) all I could think was that I was smack-dab in the middle of my mother’s before and after. I was doing exactly what she had been doing just days before everything changed. How was it possible that I was the same age she’d been?
My mother, at forty, seemed the epitome of adult. She was grown, finished. She knew how to put on eyeliner, how to drive a car, how to cook chicken.
I’m embarrassed to say that besides the pure terror of the “C-word” I didn’t consider her surgery all that big of a deal. After all, she was my mother. What did she need with breasts anyway? Breasts were for swimsuit models and high school girls. I was desperate to need my first bra but I figured she was over it.
Gah. Jeez, sorry, Mom.
At forty, I feel far from “finished.” In fact, I feel like I’m just starting to figure this whole life thing out. Yes, I know how to drive, and how to apply eyeliner (sorta), and how to cook a chicken, but I still feel like I’m wandering around clueless most of the time. And I’m still very, very, attached to my breasts. Which, God willing, will be attached to me for many years to come.
I’m not worried about what my mammogram will show. Given my family history, perhaps I should be, but I’m not. Today, I’m still living solidly in the “before,” and I assume (as my mother likely did) that I will remain here forever.
Yay for boobies!