I’ve posted this here once or twice already, but since October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it’s not a topic that can be over-emphasized, especially for women. Men, I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to skip this one.
I wrote this piece in 2009 when my husband Bill was still alive. It stresses the importance of performing monthly breast exams and annual mammograms. Did you know that if breast cancer is caught early, there’s a higher chance of survival? I know people who lived through this. If they can, so can you, ladies, as long as you take preventative steps.
I’m sitting on the toilet, moving the index and middle fingers of my right hand up, down, and around each breast, as the radiology technician showed me. There are no lumps. I stand, repeat the procedure, and still find no lumps. In the shower, I rub a generous amount of soap on both breasts and repeat the examination. Still, there are no lumps.
As I finish showering, I reflect on my first mammogram eight years ago. A friend emailed me a list of ways to prepare. One suggestion was to insert my boob into the refrigerator and close the door. Another was to place my breast behind one of the back tires of my car and have someone drive over it. Either way, I would have a feeling of what it would be like to have a mammogram. These suggestions didn’t make sense until I had my first procedure.
The mammogram machine was a tall contraption with an adjustable top. I stood, leaning against it, while my breast was squashed between the top and bottom halves. I held my arm, corresponding to the breast being examined, straight out, and clutched a bar on the side of the machine.
Two views were taken of each breast, one side to side and one top to bottom. The top to bottom ones weren’t bad, but the side to side were excruciating because of my short stature. I had to stand on tiptoe so my breast could be aligned properly.
At one point while the picture was being taken, I wondered what would happen if the power went out. Would the machine lock, trapping my boob between its metal jaws? For the next eight years, I allowed my bosom to be subjected to this torture, and for what?
As I step out of the shower and reach for my towel, I think about my mother who died of cancer ten years ago. Not in her breast, it was the dreaded disease all the same. During the last six months of her life, she was weak from chemotherapy, and Dad took care of her. The oncologist gave her a good prognosis a couple of weeks before she passed. It was a shock when she lay down on the afternoon of December 15, 1999, closed her eyes, and never woke up.
Fortunately, this didn’t happen while I was a child in need of her care. I was living on my own and holding down a job, and I only needed her companionship and moral support. I realize now that if I were to die, my husband Bill would be lost without me. Unable to care for himself, he would be forced to spend the rest of his life in a nursing home. After working in one for fifteen years, I know they’re not bad places, but living in an institution, no matter how pleasant the surroundings or friendly the staff, isn’t the same as living at home and being cared for by the one you love.
So I’ll continue to examine my breasts once a month. When I receive a card in the mail from the radiology clinic reminding me it’s time for my yearly mammogram, I’ll pick up the phone and arrange to have my boobs squashed.
“What are you doing?” Bill asks, as I climb in bed beside him and reach under my pajama top.
“I’m doing my monthly breast exam. Remember? I do it when I’m sitting, standing, in the shower, and lying down.” I still find no lumps.
With a sigh of relief, I turn, put my arm around him, snuggle against him, bury my face in his hair. “You don’t want me to die of breast cancer, do you?” I say, as I kiss him.
“No,” he answers with a laugh. “Can I examine your breasts?”
“Sure,” I answer, positioning myself so he can reach them.
We Shall Overcome
How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver
That’s Life: New and Selected Poems
My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds
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