A Lump, the Mammogram, and What Actually Matters

“A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a love sickness.” -Robert Frost

I wrote this a while ago, and in honour of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I’m reposting it here, it’s also published here.

I’ve been busy lately. We’re all busy, I realize. As much as I can, I try to put on my oxygen mask first, I really do, but something always falls through the cracks. Something like a mammogram.

Mammograms, with ultrasounds that I’m supposed to get every six months, mammograms that my gynecologist sends me sternly worded letters via registered mail to go and do – NOW. Reminders that kept getting bumped by my more immediate needs, and the endless needs of family. I had good intentions, I was going to book the tests, I was, as soon as I had some time. I need to go for the extra squeezy scans, and 30-minute ultrasounds, and I just could never find the block of time. That is, until last Friday night.

It had already been an emotional evening, and was past midnight when I was going to bed for the fifth time, and that’s when I found it – the lump in my right breast, cozied up near the lymph nodes. One of the advantages of having already been going through a stressful time is that there was, at first, little energy left for panic about a lump I didn’t think was there…last week? Last month? When was the last time I had done a Breast Self-Exam? I looked up at my bedroom ceiling and said, “REALLY?” to no one in particular.

I went to bed, too exhausted to obsess. Before I opened my eyes the next morning my first thought was, “I have a lump in my breast.” I checked, yes, it was still there. I spent ten minutes staring at the beige ceiling, wishing I’d painted it so I could have a colour to stare at. I thought about pretending I didn’t find anything, that it was just another cyst, that I shouldn’t waste anyone’s time. Then I sat up and called my doctor. I told them I found a lump. They said:  “Come in this afternoon.”

I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and thought, “This is how someone with a lump in her breast looks.” I imagined myself without breasts, scars running across my chest, like some of my friends. I imagined myself without my hair, a mane that is generally so unintentionally big it could use its own zip code.

“I have a lump.” The thought permeated everything I did that day, now accompanied by jolts of panic. I asked one of my kids to unload the dishwasher and added, in my head, “and I have a lump.” My brain shouted it to each person I saw, “Dry cappuccino, please – did you know I have a lump?!” I was fascinated by how everyone was acting like it was a perfectly ordinary day. I thought about the months I’d let slip by without getting that mammogram. I told myself I had been too busy, but that was only half true. I was tired of being poked at, I just wanted to go for a spell where I didn’t have to wear a damn hospital gown, where I wasn’t a specimen. Then I thought, “I won’t live to see my kids get any older than adolescence.” Suddenly, I hated myself.

Soon enough I was in my doctor’s waiting room, then after being weighed and measured I was lying down in a paper gown that opens in the front, being examined by my doctor. He is the first doctor I’ve had who is younger than I am; perhaps this will be the trend from now on – younger and younger doctors examining my aging body. He’s a nice guy, and we joke around a lot. He’s seen me through a major car accident, liver failure, pneumonia, hip surgery…and we always manage to find some bit of humour to break things up a bit. So I thought he was joking – I actually started laughing – when he said, “You need to see a surgeon right away.” Then I saw his face.

I finally got that mammogram I’d been putting off – STAT. All eight views, with stickers attached, and the lump clearly marked. I had the ultrasound to map the lump’s exact location and size. I spent two hours in freezing rooms wearing a paper gown while technicians spoke encouragingly to me. I think, “They are always nicest to people who have cancer.” Then I wait. And I think about my body, my breasts. I remember the touch of a lover’s hand and wonder if I will ever feel that again. I remember the years of nursing my children. I think about what makes me beautiful, what makes me a woman.

I wait, my thoughts cycling for two days, before I see the equally friendly surgeon. I bring a friend, a breast cancer survivor, who brings a notepad and pen. More examinations, more discussions of test results, another front-opening gown, and I don’t have cancer.

I don’t have cancer.

I almost feel guilty. Everyone has been so kind, so supportive, and I don’t even have cancer. My friend is thrilled, and now I really do feel guilty, as if I’d made up the whole thing for attention.

Shortly thereafter, I acknowledged my tendency to make myself crazy with very little encouragement; I can take a small bit of information and just know that I’m sick, I’m being cut up, my hair’s falling out, and not too much later my children are motherless. But there is so much genuine fear in finding a lump in your breast, or anywhere else.

What took longer to sink in was how much love and support there was for me. This drama took less than a week, and in that time I had several friends and many health care professionals surrounding me with love, even as I spun my tragic stories faster and faster. In the end, that’s what I take from this experience:  Even when I am terrified, I am surrounded with love and compassion.

I have a future of frequent and intense breast examinations to monitor all my lumps (I have many, as it turns out), and I’m okay with that. Bad things can and will happen, and what’s important is that we love and support each other. What’s important is that we women allow ourselves to be loved and care for, because we’re all we’ve got.

Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Body of a Woman,” has become a touchstone for me, especially when situations like “the lump” arise and my sense of what is good and what is beautiful about myself become blurred. He writes of his love not only for a woman’s body, but also her spirit, grace, strength, heart and soul. It is a profound description of beauty and love that does not relate to size, cellulite, or scars, but of enraptured awe. This type of love and regard would endure regardless of surgery or disfigurement, as it encompasses thewhole woman, not simply superficial slices of her. It is an earthy, sensuous love that knows nothing of models, magazine covers, or western society’s ridiculous expectations. Neruda conveys his passion, appreciation and love for the beauty and awe of a realwoman’s body.

Body of a Woman – translation

by Pablo Neruda

Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world, lying in surrender.
My rough peasant’s body digs in you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.

I was lone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
and nigh swamped me with its crushing invasion.
To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,
like an arrow in my bow, a stone in my sling.

But the hour of vengeance falls, and I love you.
Body of skin, of moss, of eager and firm milk.
Oh the goblets of the breast! Oh the eyes of absence!
Oh the roses of the pubis! Oh your voice, slow and sad!

Body of my woman, I will persist in your grace.
My thirst, my boundless desire, my shifting road!
Dark river-beds where the eternal thirst flows
and weariness follows, and the infinite ache.

Corpo de Mujer

Cuerpo de mujer, blancas colinas, muslos blancos,
te pareces al mundo en tu actitud de entrega.
Mi cuerpo de labriego salvaje te socava
y hace saltar el hijo del fondo de la tierra.

Fui solo como un túnel. De mí huían los pájaros
y en mí la noche entraba su invasión poderosa.
Para sobrevivirme te forjé como un arma,
como una flecha en mi arco, como una piedra en mi honda.

Pero cae la hora de la venganza, y te amo.
Cuerpo de piel, de musgo, de leche ávida y firme.
Ah los vasos del pecho! Ah los ojos de ausencia!
Ah las rosas del pubis! Ah tu voz lenta y triste!

Cuerpo de mujer mía, persistiré en tu gracia.
Mi sed, mi ansia sin límite, mi camino indeciso!
Oscuros cauces donde la sed eterna sigue,
y la fatiga sigue, y el dolor infinito.

Vente poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada – Pablo Neruda, 1924

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