A month after my 50th birthday I buttoned the shoulder strap of my summer dress and felt a lump at the top of my right breast, about the size of a marshmallow crème egg.
Entering menopause is a sort of reverse adolescence, with similar uncertainties and embarrassments. Having always been regular, almost to the hour, my cycles were random, sometimes arriving with no warning after months of absence. Hunh, I thought, I must be about to get one of my random periods. Not unusual for me to have lumpy breasts before menstruating. Onward.
Driving to work that morning, my gaze lingered on the owl and the eagle feathers I’d found earlier that week. Suggesting a message or portent, the feathers had appeared unexpectedly on sidewalks I’d passed hundreds of times before without ever spotting any feathers. I’d picked them up with a shiver of unease. I’ll hang them in my car; talismans.
A week later, no period, and the lump was still there, and I’d felt a hard pea-sized lump in my armpit. The reminder for my annual mammogram was filed on the counter in the “later” pile. Each time I passed through the kitchen it fluttered insistent paper fingers at me until I made the appointment.
I undress in a curtained-off cubicle. Even though I showered less than an hour ago, I tend to my armpits with the wipes that the office has provided in a small plastic tub. The gown rustles quietly; at least it’s not hospital green, I think. My mind chatters in the background, disconnected from my body. I have lumps in my breast! That thought is set aside, like the junk mail on the counter.
Last year when I was in this office, I’d arrived for my appointment crying, having just euthanized my dog. We’d tended her for many months as she slowly deteriorated from cancer. Notably fastidious, she suffered with her mouth stinking from the suppurating tumor. When she was unable to eat without pain, we decided to put her down. As the drugs entered her body, my beloved dog turned to me anxiously. “You’re OK,” I said falsely reassuring, as I sent her into oblivion.
Seeing my tears, sympathetic front desk staff paired me with a technician who was “the dog lover.” An older woman with a blunt no-nonsense haircut, she spoke kindly and handled my breasts gently throughout the exam. I sniffled, wiped tears and tried to comply with her instructions to breathe, and not breathe, between sobs, at the correct times.
Today I have the same technician; but today she’s all business. She does not say a thing other than to brusquely direct me, “Don’t breathe,” or “You can breathe now.” She keeps her eyes on her monitor and avoids my gaze as if afraid of catching what I have. She slaps my breasts like chicken meat, clamping them hard between the acrylic plates of the mammogram machine, making sure to get good images of that lump. My armpits weep as ripples of fear travel across my chest. And so we begin.