On Thursday, I got my first mammogram. I’ve turned forty, it was time. On Wednesday, when my doctor was giving me a quick breast exam during a checkup, she felt at the tops of my breasts and said, Where are you in your cycle? She said, This just feels all lumpy in here. She called it grittiness — the tech explained to me, We call that nodularity.
I didn’t feel worried: my breasts felt like my breasts. Not smooth maybe but nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I needed to get a mammogram — don’t they say you’re supposed to get them once you turn forty? This would be my rite of passage. What if we had other welcomings into the different phases of our life?My breast is still sore from being smashed during the mammogram. The techs found nothing to worry about at the sites my doctor had been worried about. Instead they found an infinitesimal gathering of microcalcifications at another site in my right breast and now I have something to watch or biopsy. Welcome to the club.
I was so grateful that I am familiar with the feel of my own breasts. I do not do regular breast exams, but I have done them, and I hold and feel my breasts with some regularity. This, as it turns out, helped: I knew, when I put my hands to the areas that the doctor was worried about, that it was not uncommon for my breasts to feel just that way. So my concern, as I walked in to Kaiser for my mammogram, was not that there was something new or different going on with my breasts at those sites — it was that maybe there had always been something wrong with exactly how my breasts are.
Why do women put up with this procedure? You’ve had one, I’m sure, or have heard about them. Your breast is handled like a piece of meat, pressed and lifted and stretched out to suit the procedure’s needs (and I’m not putting the techs down here; the woman I was working with was great, forthcoming, helpful, focused on both me and the Giant’s game; she talked to me about everything she was seeing on the scans). This is one of the most sensitive parts of our bodies, people. Then, after the meat of our breast has been placed just right, the machine is tightened so that our flesh is smashed between two pieces of translucent plastic. In order for the picture to come out correctly, we are told not to breathe. It’s not just hold still. It’s Don’t breathe.
When I talked with my mom about the experience later, she remarked about that part: Then they say, Don’t breathe, don’t breathe. I thought, Right! Be more like a woman! Stand here while I cause you pain, don’t move, don’t speak, don’t breathe.
This is gender essentialist, I know. And I understand now the humor I’ve seen saying that if men had to go through this kind of procedure to screen for issues in their testicles or penis, we’d have some different sort of mechanism developed already.
But why figure out another method when the people who’s bodies are being smashed between pieces of plastic are keeping quiet and holding still? When we’re doing what we’re told because we are scared and because breast cancer is an enormous pink cloud already clotting around us and we don’t want to do anything that will mess up the process or blur the pictures or upset the doctors because we just want to get out of there with our breasts given a clean bill of health. Because we know how to be good girls when we’re told to be.
I was scared after I got back to work from the doctor. Scared isn’t quite right. I was wiped out. I’d just run my first race in the world of women over 40 — go get your mammogram. Be in the machines, in the gown, in the sit here and wait, come on in for a close up, this will hurt more: hold your breath harder. Be more still. Here’s a photo of something so tiny we would require this mechanism to even pick it up — and now you have something to worry about. Before you walked in here today, you were not worried (How could I say I was not worried? Of course I was. I’m in the system now. It’s the system’s job to find problems.) — but now we have a photograph of something that’s probably entirely normal but we just can’t be sure.
There are so many topics we don’t talk about openly enough — cancer screenings, miscarriage, adoption — these places where our bodies are at odds with expectation. I am afraid to talk about this little gathering of microcalcifications having a tea party in my breast. I don’t want to give it any attention and thereby grow it. Look at how I feel some responsibility, look at how I have internalized this idea that we grow our own cancers (and why am I already using the language of cancer?) and we can shed them if we just think right, act right, eat right. It’s all up to individual responsibility, and has nothing to do with living in a toxic, unregulated environment — or just being a human with flesh, with cells that sometimes mutate.
Here’s the other part I want to talk about: I was delighted to get to see the nova bursts of the insides of my own breasts, the striations of ductal tissue and fat, the tiny pings of sand here, there. Given how much sorrow my breasts still carry, I was surprised not to see more inside there: maybe the shape of my stepfather’s fingers, maybe the knife bone of his rage and terrorizing, maybe my own tears. Our breasts are right at armor level — I experience my own breasts as holding a lot of my trauma; they feel heavy with that old weight. They feel like the force field that his violence had to penetrate in order to get to the insides of me. My breasts still know that penetration.
I apologized to them before and during and after the mammogram: who should have to endure such indignity? Which of ANY of our glorious breasts should have to be handled this way? I lifted my hands to the both of them while I walked down Geary street toward the bus and thought, I love my breasts. We’re not supposed to touch our breasts in public, not on purpose, and certainly not when we’re not trying to turn someone else on. I ignored the traffic and cupped myself in my own two hands, pressing in and back, wanting them to loose and release the stress of that mashing and this new site of ‘do I need to worry about this?’
What would it look like to focus my attention on shedding what trauma my breasts still hold? I have thought about this for awhile. Honestly, I was surprised not to see a whole closetful of loss held right there inside my mammary glands: were those stretchings of greyscale northern lights all that my breasts contained? Where were the shoes and weapons and dog’s teeth and fingernails and bent hangers and hidden mouths and rage? Where was the armor plating and bullet-proof ductal work?
it’s not uncommon for me to experience some sorrow when a lover handles my breasts, or when I do. I avoided and smashed down my breasts for many years. Now, I want a ceremony for the parts of my body that have held the bulk of my trauma for all these years: hands, breasts, shoulders, pelvis. I want a room filled with all the people who have loved me and themselves through years of their own loss, I want candles and singing, I want anointing and welcome. I want these parts of my body to be welcomed back into the world of humanity, back into the world of womanhood, back into the fullness of this flesh. I want massage and scented oils and sacred words. I want old poems to be spoken directly into the muscle, into the flesh. I want nighttime and late moon and owl song and fragrant teas. I want the sacred foods placed directly on this tongue that was so knotted and made to eat itself: I want it welcomed back fully into this body, I want this body welcomed fully back into this human lifetime.
Where are our sacred rituals? Where is the peace we make for one another? Where is the space we hold for shedding, when we’re ready, the armor around the skin that has kept us alive and kept us apart?
The mammogram is the ritual that welcomed me into the world of women-over-forty, into the world of women-not-trying-to-conceive, into the early (early, ok?) stages of cronehood: this place of bright lights and pink beribboned forms to fill out and a machine made by GE that takes one of the tenderest pieces of me and crushes it (in service to medical science, in service to proaction, in service to protection). My sacred gown fell to mid thigh, tied at belly and throat, and mostly revealed what I was wearing it to cover as it was too big for me. The other women at this ceremony with me sat in silence. We did not look at each other directly: we did what we were told — sit there and wait. We were nervous. We did not take each other’s hands. We listened to the voice of a tech/nurse in the ultrasound room with a new mama, talking through the parts of her baby’s body that were showing up on the screen: There’s the feet and legs, there’s the belly and organs. There’s the life that’s about to emerge.
~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~
What rituals have you completed on this journey into humanity? What rituals would you like to experience? What would a sacred healing ritual look like for you? How has your body had to interact with the medical establishment? Give yourself ten or fifteen minutes (or, since now it’s a Saturday, maybe you can take a little more time) and edge into those questions — notice what arises as you write, and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.
I am grateful for the small ceremonies you have made for yourself and others– and for the ways you navigate the pieces of radical self care that have you interacting with mainstream medical establishment. Thank you for your generosity with your magnificent body. Thank you for your words.