I am lying on my stomach on a mauve, pleather table. The table has a hole in the center through which my right breast hangs. My right cheek is glued with sweat to the plastic upholstery, my neck torqued at an odd angle. I am here for a somewhat routine, yet nonetheless grim procedure: a needle biopsy. But as the nurse's cool hands touch me I'm thinking I can put a sex-positive spin on this somehow. Sure there are going to be needles involved, and I'm no masochist, but today I am going to try to welcome pain in my breast as an erotic experience. Maybe I can overcome my anxiety by pretending I am here to get a nipple piercing or something.
The doctor enters the room. He has a craggy, handsome face and reminds me of a hot ex-boyfriend and I think, oh, this is gonna be easy. I am writing the one-handed read in my head as Mc. Dreamy peers beneath the table at my exposed, and surely erect flesh. The doc explains the procedure to me in friendly, reasonable terms. He is clearly a kind man, respectful and soft spoken with deeply sympathetic eyes. I wonder if he's married, forgetting for a moment that I am.
My husband sits in a room down the hall, on a floral sofa in the waiting room of the Joyce Eisenberg Keefer Breast Center at St. John's Hospital. With its back issues of House Beautiful and its gift shop featuring head wraps and falsies, he had already begun catnapping before I was called in to my appointment. After a forty-five minute wait, I am taken in the back to change into a gown. I have arranged to have our younger daughter picked up from school and taken to a birthday party by a friend, but she doesn't know the plan and I am feeling anxious about all the logistics of the afternoon.
"You must hold perfectly still," both doctor and nurse tell me, and ever the good girl, I do. All I can see is the clock on the wall and a striped privacy curtain that borders the right half of my vista. The vertical stripes are a soft progression of mauve, puce, and mint green. Who the hell thinks these are nice colors to look at? I wonder to myself. And I think of all the sick and dying people in this hospital, whose last vision on earth may be of these pukey colors. I am outraged.
My boob is smashed down in mammogram fashion, but with extra clamps to keep me immobile. As I am a modest B-cup, it takes a heap of extra squashing to get enough meat on the plate. My "sexy time" mindset ebbs a little as they winch the clamp down harder. 'Ooh yeah baby, that's it, it hurts so good, harder lover' I try to convince myself, but it just isn't working.
I am sad that it is my right breast that has fallen under this abuse. It is my favorite one. Lefty I gave up on a few years ago. Lefty got over-used in the nursing of my two babies. Right-handed women favor their left side for breast feeding as it leaves their dominant hand free to multi-task. I have also heard that we subconsciously favor the left side as babies have a nicer time nursing over their mother's beating heart. Whatever the case, suffice it to say that Lefty has gone all National Geographic on me while Righty is perky and still relatively cute. She's my show breast. Not that many people see her these days.
"I am going to swab the skin and it will feel cool," says Nurse Flores, and I smell the snap of the antiseptic and a chill on my skin. My right nipple pops up under the cold swab, and I'm back to thinking my radical pain strategy just might work. Then the doctor ducks under the table and says, "You will feel a pinch," and he begins injecting a local anesthesia. My fantasy does a Hindenberg, bursting into flames as searing pain flares through my mammary.
"Now, you're going to feel some pressure," says the doctor. I figure now I'm numbed, let's party! —but they snake in what feels like a length of garden hose and goddamn, that hurts even more. "Now, don't move, you will hear a loud noise, don't jump back." As if I could. Bang! The probe is jammed into place via a mechanical thrust that makes a staple gun-like noise. I cry out.
Exactly at 2:30 my cell phone starts ringing. I just know its my daughter, wondering where I am. I hear the phone go to voicemail, and hope she'll try her dad next, but no, the phone just rings again.
There is some yucky maneuvering of the tube as it snips away inside my boob like some kind of freaky alien abduction device (another sexual fantasy that has utterly failed me). The doctor gets his sample, but says I have to stay rigged to the table until he can look at it to make sure he got everything he needed. He leaves me and Nurse Flores alone, she has her hand on my breast and my phone rings yet again.
"Could you possibly hand me my phone? I think my daughter is trying to reach me."
"I would," she says with a sympathetic lilt, "but you are bleeding a lot and I have to keep pressure on it." What the... I am bleeding under there?! Somehow I thought this would be bloodless, but I see now that was just magical thinking. The phone rings and the stress mounts, crests, peaks, fades then repeats with each ring. Wave after wave of anxiety is crashing over me as I stare at those mocking, insipid stripes in the curtain. Who designs this shit? Is there some study that shows that these namby-pamby hues calm and comfort the ill? In the same way the orange and turquoise color scheme of Howard Johnson's is said to stimulate appetite, are these colors supposed to have a calming effect on me, because it isn't fucking working!! The paternalistic condescension behind the design of those hideous curtains is making me totally crazy.
I lie there, helpless, as my child tries over and over again to reach me. I think about that baby, and the one before, who I birthed in this very hospital. I think of the shiny bows of their sweet mouths on my breasts, the pleasure I had in nursing them. I feel sad that the part of my life where everyone wants to suck on me is coming to a close. Now what's left? Pain, humiliation, striped curtains and mauve furniture?
Finally I am released. I call my friend to learn he has found my daughter and they are on the way to the birthday party. I get taped up, and sent to negotiate my bra with a throbbing, bruised, betrayed, breast. I swaddle myself in my cardigan and go to rouse my husband from his waiting room slumber. We get on the elevator and it stops on every floor, the doors opening to reveal level after level of mauve side chairs, mint green paint, taupe end tables. Get me out of here!!!
We are on Santa Monica Blvd. when I burst into tears, burying my face in my husband's warm sweater. "If I have breast cancer," I hiccup, "we have to find a hospital with a good color scheme. I want to look at grassy greens and bright yellows, because pastels will surely kill me."
That night I lie in bed with an ice pack while my older daughter sits beside me, in tears. She is among the first of her friends to grow breasts, and is encountering her first round of boob-related anxiety. Her as-yet undeveloped best friend is jealous. She has accused my daughter of flaunting her largesse by wearing a padded bra. God, I remember the agony of sixth grade, where you were either teased for having boobs, or teased for not having any. Mine were slow and shy, peeking out a millimeter at a time. I stayed pimple-chested for what seemed like an eternity. That was the only time in my life I wished for larger breasts. They grew a little more, then stopped, allowing me to live a life above and beyond my chest, pleased by it, but never defined by it, as so many other women have been —or have chosen to be.
Still, I'd hate to see them go. My friend T., a once full-breasted beauty, had a double-mastectomy last year, and now, at the tender age of forty, struggles to hoist her sexuality out of the wreckage of her disease, and claim a new sense of herself, her marriage, her part in this earthly dance. She burns with intent —the will to live and see her four children grow up. But some part of her has died young, and it laces her conversation with wistfulness.
”I've had so many breast cancer patients the last few weeks,” says Beazy, my OB-GYN over the phone today. “if I had to add you to the list Erika, I would have thrown in the towel." I can hear how wrung out she is. “But your pathology report is negative.” I feel like I've won some kind of cosmic door prize. I have heard so many stories in the last month of women less fortunate than I. Young women whose breasts have turned against them, taking them from their families, their dreams, the rest of their lives. I ask her if she's seeing an increase in breast cancer patients in her practice, and she says she has. I ask if she thinks its because we're living in such a toxic environment. "Yeah, partly that, and also just the age we are now."
So this is growing older in Los Angeles. A struggle to survive both biology and geography. There isn't much breast cancer in my family, but there's the nearly twenty years of particulate matter I've been breathing. Who knows what the final sum will be? So today I'll just gently rub arnica on Righty, tell her I love her, try to hang onto her and her sweet, saggy sister for as long as I possibly can.