I was at home when I found the lump. I had just woken up to another bright and sunny morning in my beloved San Francisco, that peculiar city teeming with tech wizards, trailblazing culture warriors, and individuals of every race, color and creed, which Goddess had created in His own beautiful image.
The lump hurt. It was on my right breast, smaller than the size of a penny. I couldn’t remember if it had been there the night before. For a while, I simply sat and stared at this unwelcome, frightening stranger. I prodded it with a finger and the pain rippled through my chest.
I groaned and swiveled my feet to the floor. The movement brought questions flooding into my head. Was the lump new? How long had it been there? And then, the big one: Was it cancer?
My heart raced as I thought of my mother and grandfather. Both had succumbed to the hateful disease, and the memory of their deaths–long, painful affairs–made me shudder as if I was cold. I sat on the end of the mattress, hunched over, a twisted “Why me?” expression on my face, and a belly full of fear.
I had been here before. Last year. I had battled lymph node cancer through eight wretched months of intense treatments. I had won. But the experience left me with physical and emotional scars. And now this lump. Had the beast returned to wage war against my organs again?
I spent the next few days anxiously scrutinizing the lump, hoping against hope that it was only a temporary visitor. Perhaps it was a reaction to something I’d eaten or a strained muscle from too much exercise?
I’m retired now, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the mystery bug inside me, creeping insidiously, targeting vulnerabilities and searching for a host to latch on to and overwhelm.
I became obsessed with the environment around me, frightening myself with imagined contaminants in the food I ate, the water I drank, and even the air I was breathing. The lump was driving me insane. It had to go. I had to get the poison out of me!
Eventually, I drew up the courage and went to my doctor, exactly one week after I had made that first, awful discovery. The lump had grown, or so I thought, and the pain had increased.
The speed with which my doctor reacted added to my sense of panic. I was immediately referred to the Breast Center for a mammogram. That’s when I knew I was in trouble. My worst fears were confirmed: the big “C” had returned.
As soon as I arrived home, I rushed to my desk and switched on the PC, fingers trembling. Eight months of angst-filled chemo sessions, torturous radiation treatments and heart stopping doctor’s exams flashed through my mind. I was overcome with feelings of utter helplessness. Would I have to go through all of that again? I could see the long, dark corridors of time; I felt the torment of unanswered questions. A familiar fear gripped my heart.
An Internet search revealed that between two and three thousand American women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year; around 500 die. I felt hot tears fill my eyes and my throat was as dry as sand. I didn’t want this. I did not want return to a place I vowed never to visit again.
My hand shook as I dialed the number for the Breast Center.
“I’d like to schedule a mammogram.” I said, struggling to maintain my composure.
“Pardon me?” He sounded almost amused.
I repeated my request and sat listening to the seconds of silence on the other end of the line.
“Have you seen a doctor?” He spoke slowly, as if he were addressing a child.
I took a deep breath. “Yes. Doctor Wilson sent a requisition.”
“Huh.” He thought it was a prank. I could hear it in his voice. I fought back the vague sensation of disgust. It’s not his fault, I told myself. He probably gets many prank calls. I mean, women and breast cancer–come on!
He spoke again: “Name and D.O.B., please?”
I gave him the information and listened as his fingers tapped the keyboard. I sat quietly, my clothes moist with sweat. His animosity seemed strange–maybe he was also having a difficult day. Ten minutes later, I was in a taxi, on the way to my first appointment.
We drove past the Painted Gentlemen, my eyes drifting over the familiar Victorian houses set against a backdrop of downtown skyscrapers. I hardly noticed the Golden Gate Bridge. It seemed like only seconds, but there I was, standing in the lobby of the Breast Center as the clerk wrote my name on the anonymous registration list. Suddenly my legs did not seem strong enough. I nearly collapsed into the chair, my chest gripped like it was in a vise.
There were five other men in the waiting area. A few were reading magazines. The rest looked down, staring at the generic, blue-gray carpet. I was the only woman. My stomach lurched as I heard my name called.
The men turned their heads towards me as I pull myself up and out of the chair. I headed towards the registrar’s desk. He was in his late-thirties, I think, his hair tied back in a no-nonsense pony tail. His eyes widened when he looked up to greet me.
“Oh! I’m sorry….”
I smiled his apologies away and waited while he recorded my details. Slowly, it dawned on me that I was embarrassed to be there. I was a woman–a woman with suspected breast cancer. The irony would be hilarious if such a prognosis wasn’t so deadly. My face felt hot and I shifted my weight from foot to foot, a nervous schoolboy waiting to be scolded.
I’ve had my fair share of such visits. I’ve always felt comfortable and safe in clinics, hospitals, even emergency rooms. But this place seemed cold; I didn’t feel like I should even be there. The clerk handed me a wristband and asked for my signature.
“Take the elevator to the second floor,” he said, smiling and pointing down the hall. I fought the urge to simply turn and leave, scurrying away amid feelings of dread and embarrassment.
The elevator doors opened and I was greeted by two nurses lodged behind a needlessly imposing reception counter. I nodded “hello” and showed them my wristband. The one with ‘Beth’ written on his name tag pointed to a waiting area off to my right.
“Have a seat and we’ll call you shortly,” he said. His voice was functional and seemingly devoid of empathy. I found a chair and sat among about a dozen men. Almost instantly, the one nearest to me moved his purse away and gripped it tightly against his belly. The others stared, but turned away when my eyes met theirs.
I remembered something that had happened a while back. One morning, my friend Jamal–tall and black, an ex-Broadway dancer–and I were on our way to an AA meeting. We had turned a corner and were walking side-by-side down Market Street when a man glanced at my friend, startled, and used both his arms to brace his purse against his body. Jamal smiled, but I could see the disappointment in her eyes.
Now, in a room full of white men, I felt just like my friend. I was an interloper here; they did not trust me. Did they really think that I was going to steal their purses? I nearly laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of that thought.
A nurse approached. “Mr. Johnson,” he called.
The dark-haired man across from me slowly closed his magazine and stood up. I saw sideways glances in my direction. I crossed my legs and acted like I wasn’t bothered, but I only wanted to crawl somewhere and hide. I buried my face in the pages of Self, engrossed in a two-page spread of the world’s best-dressed men, nicely posed on a bright red carpet.
Soon, I catch myself looking around, staring at the faces of those who were around me. I was still getting the curious glances and I couldn’t help but think that I was not welcome here. I was a trespasser, a female in a male place.
I noticed that none of the nurses wore make-up. They all looked freshly scrubbed, with tossed hair and clothes that hung loosely. It struck me that I was in a men-only zone; there was no pressure to be pretty. That’s totally cool, I thought, because after all, isn’t that exactly what we do? Straight gals don’t spiff themselves up for others like them, so why should these men?
I realized then that I was being stared at by a boy with tattoos and a girl’s crew cut. He had a badly disguised sneer and eyes full of suspicion. I felt uncomfortable and looked away. Why do they doubt my intentions, or even my character? Suddenly I felt like a pervert, hanging around for a glimpse of a boob. WTF, I thought, I don’t even date men. Glimpsing a naked breast was the last thing on my mind. I had become a knuckle-dragging cavewoman, a predator, who had invaded their space. I wanted to leave.
A fortyish man, dressed in scrubs, appeared at the reception desk and leaned down to Beth. I could hear them whispering and then they both laughed quietly to themselves. The nurse looked up and called my name.
He led me to an examination room where it soon becomes obvious that the procedure has not been designed with women in mind. I stood, stripped to the waist with perspiration oozing from my pores, as the nurse tried to squeeze me toward the machine. It was awkward. The little breasts I have didn’t quite fit. I couldn’t say who was more embarrassed, the nurse or me.
When it was over, I returned to my chair in the waiting area and sat quietly, my heart beating crazily. A man with a small child emerged from the elevator and he was greeted with smiles. I assumed he was a staff member, coming in on his day off to show off his girl.
“Good to see you and the little one!”
“Great to see you!”
The welcome committee was boisterous and enthusiastic, the boyish-greetings sickly sweet. It brought back memories of empty high school cheerleader chit-chat–the sweet young boys who turned into backstabbing witches the moment one left their midst.
And then suddenly, I was that skinny little kid in the junior high lunchroom, surrounded by designer-clad boys with rich moms from the best neighborhoods. They were discussing girls, as usual, and competing for the attention of the captain of the football team.
“Oh! She’s cute!”
I despised it when I was young and hated it now. I had escaped from that painful reality, but now it was if I had been thrown right back in. I sank into my seat. I remembered that this was a man’s world, and tried to be as inconspicuous as I could.
But then, something inside of me began to rebel. I sat up straight, stretched out my legs and spread them wide. Yeah, I thought with a smile, “Look at me. I’m a woman airing her balls. Why don’t you arrest me like they do on some big city subways, because men’s groups had convinced lawmakers that it was illegal for a woman to move her legs more than x inches apart?
The hens down the hall were still pecking when I grabbed another magazine to block them out. It was Pregnancy Magazine, which is apparently the authority on wombs and birthing. I sighed and uttered the “F” word under my breath. It was a uterus/breast celebration of things that made my stomach twist.
Out of nowhere, I had the urgent need to pee.
“Through the exit doors and on the right,” Beth instructed.
I walked down the corridor past the exit to the women’s room. It looked as if it had been put outside the clinic as an afterthought. The entire clinic, I realized as I zipped back up and washed my hands, was a vulva cave. I simply couldn’t wait to get the hell out of that thoroughly masculized space.
“Your ultrasound is this way,” he said curtly when I returned. “Follow me, please.”
He led me to a room where I laid down on a bed and waited for another man to perform the test.
“The doctor will be in soon to explain your results,” he told me.
I had nothing to say. Fifteen minutes later, the doctor breezed in.
“Good news: you’re negative,” he said.
My head started to spin and I exhaled deeply. I was shaking while I waited outside for a taxi. I knew the emotional shock would hit me as soon as I got home. I climbed into the back of the cab as if it was a getaway car and I had just robbed a bank.
As we drove through the city, my still-reeling mind thought about all those liberal dads, obsessed with raising children without gender labels. The so-called ‘forward thinking’ males who desperately avoid the binary of blue for girls and pink for boys like it is some kind of medieval dogma that is too silly to comprehend.
They probably would not even be aware, let alone acknowledge, of what I went through, the deep and painful humiliation I experienced as a female inside the Breast Center. I had been trapped inside a blatantly sexist environment for hours on end, but because I was a woman, I simply had to live with it. Had men’s idea of gender equality really devolved into male superiority and hostility toward women? It seemed so.
When I opened my door, I was completely exhausted. I fell into bed and slept for sixteen hours straight. My last thought as I drifted into blessed, healing sleep was that mammograms for women, well, they’re truly f**ked up.