WARNING: Yes, this is a post about breasts. It’s mostly a philosophical, biological musing about my current conflicted thoughts about this one body part, spurred on by a “bad” mammogram and a conversation with a friend in the same situation. I’m not writing to over-share or shock, rather to bring some sense of validation to other women with the same thoughts and issues related to mammograms.
Last week I went for my annual check up with my gynecologist. I really like my doctor. She is a good listener and even though I typically just see her once a year, she remembers little details like what year of school the boys are in, asks about the church, my classes, etc. Last year she stopped in the middle of my exam to write down a couple of books I suggested. This year, we discussed how to make a t-shirt quilt during that awkward moment when she is doing the breast exam, her face is within my visual field, and I am staring at the ceiling wishing I were somewhere else. From there we moved onto the even more unpleasant part of the exam, which ended up with some (surprise!) painful cervical biopsies that ultimately came back negative. Anyway, we finish that nonsense, I jokingly, but sincerely, told her that she managed to outdo herself, making our annual meeting even more unpleasant than usual.
I came back the next day for modern day, medically-sanctioned, insurance-covered
torture preventative medicine. In other words, a mammogram. There is nothing quite like the experience of dangling by my breasts from a machine that is exerting many, many pounds per square inch of pressure to mash them into mammary pancakes. I swear that the technician caught a couple of my ribs in the machine too. As I am trying to remember my Lamaze techniques and Bradley breathing to get past the pain, she nonchalantly asks if I’m okay. I want to scream, “Don’t talk! Push the button and release these large plates of torture. Let’s get this over with.” Two films on each side–squished top to bottom and side to side, then I’m on my way out the door with the reminder that I’ll get a letter if all is good and a phone call if not.
…The following day I got a phone call.
There was a suspicious area in my left breast, so I needed to come back in for an ultrasound for sure and possibly a diagnostic mammogram. I was scheduled for the following day, this past Wednesday.
At this point, I should state that this happened to me a few years ago as well. A “bad” screening mammogram led to a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound which were still suspicious. I was then referred to a breast surgeon and at that point I started googling breast cancer and mastectomy information, to be honest. I met with the surgeon, then had a breast MRI and finally it was concluded that I did not have breast cancer. What I did find out is that I have “dense breasts.” This is not something that can be diagnosed by a physical exam, only mammogram. Women with dense breasts have less breast fat and more glandular/connective tissue and milk ducts. Fat appears grey or black on a mammogram and cancer appears white. Dense breast tissue also appears white, so it is hard to detect cancer among the other dense tissues. That whole previous hullabaloo involved my right breast, so this time my body decided to switch things up.
Honestly, I wasn’t the least bit worried the first time, until I had to meet with the surgeon and even then, I wasn’t losing sleep. I used to be a huge worrier, but (true story) God removed 99% of my worrying from me over a decade ago. (Happy to relay that story, confessions of a recovered worrier, another time). This time I wasn’t worried either. I knew I had dense breasts and that it is hard to determine anything from a mammogram, so I would just wait to be worried when/if there was a reason to be.
So two days ago I went for my ultrasound. While I was in the waiting room, in walked my neighbor with her husband. Since she is just a couple of years younger than me I knew she and her husband weren’t there for a pregnancy visit, so it must be not-so-good news. It turned out that she was there for the exact same reason I was and had also gone through multiple tests and biopsies a few years ago. She and I talked in detail about our problematic boobs (and laughed a lot), which is the reason for this post. Basically, the gist of our conversation was that our relationship with our respective boobage could only be defined as “it’s complicated.”
Why are things so complicated? Well, as women in our mid-late 40s, our breasts have largely served their purpose. An evolutionary biologist would say that our breasts, along with waist to hip ratio, signaled to potential mates that we could produce, bear, and nourish offspring. Well, I got me a mate and we managed to produce two sons. I then breastfed each son for a year, so my “girls” fulfilled that biological obligation too. My boobs have done their duty. As far as their roles in procreation and nourishment goes, their job is finished and they are “out to pasture.” As my friend and I discussed, breasts have no biological purpose anymore and due to our bad mammo history, sometimes we look down at them and think of them as nothing but a liability. As my friend put it, “It’s like I’m waiting and wondering when one of them is going to ‘go bad.'” I can relate. Sometimes I look at my chest and wonder when or if one is going to go rogue. We talked about how sometimes we wish we could just get rid of them and the what-if that we lug around daily in our bras.
But radical, preventative mastectomy is not the answer either. I don’t have a strong family history of breast cancer, fortunately. I totally understand someone with the breast cancer gene having a preventative mastectomy. However, I don’t have that history. And the milk production purpose aside, the girls do still have roles to fulfill in my life. They still have a place in my marriage (and that’s all I’m gonna say about that–read Song of Solomon in the Old Testament if you don’t know what I mean). Also, none of my blouses or dresses would fit right anymore without my mammary glands. Finally, having breasts is a part of my identity as a female. They have been with me since the age of 12-13. Even though they can be awfully inconvenient at times (exercise, seat-belts, etc.), they are a key part of my body that make me more feminine.
I think there is another issue at play that makes women feel hyper-aware of their breasts and the inherent risks of having them attached to one’s body. Breast cancer is the most advertised, hyped, and frankly, sexualized cancer of all. In October we will be bombarded with fund-raising races, advertisements, and pink everything to increase breast cancer awareness. Much of this is very good. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women and we have made progress in early detection and improved treatment.I would bet that anyone reading this could name more than one person that know who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. However, it is not the deadliest cancer in women. That dubious award goes to lung cancer, yet how much do we hear about it? Lungs just aren’t quite as titillating (pun intended) as breast cancer. You don’t see lung cancer slogans as provocative as “Squeeze a boob. Save a life.” or “Protect second base.” That’s a problem of which much has been written, include this website devoted to critical analysis of “pink ribbon culture.” The whole issue about breasts, the role that play in the female life cycle and identity, the marketing geared toward them, and the medical approach is a complex one.
Fortunately for me, my ultrasound took only about 5 minutes. The radiologist went right to the problem area and located a fluid-filled 6 cm cyst. No problems, no additional testing.–just return next year for my annual mammogram. So I have another year with this post-pubertal tissue sitting on my chest to ponder my ongoing conflicted relationship with my breasts. Being a woman…it’s complicated.
…And, to add insult to injury, both of my favorite, daily, utilitarian bras both sprung a leak in their underwire the same week. Can’t catch a break.