Every year, when the days grow short and chilly, I make my annual breast pilgrimage to New York. For a few hours I am lotioned, prodded, kneaded, and photographed by surgeons, mammographers, oncologists, and gynecologists, and spend much time between procedures waiting in dark rooms. Some of my medicos make light of our yearly encounters with jokes and banter, but my breasts are precious burdens and I prefer to keep the conversation businesslike as they lay exposed before us.
It began years ago, when my gynecologist Dr. Rossi was doing her rounds of checks of the female parts of me. She delivered my last baby, and although I have since moved to Maryland, I have kept her as my doctor; she has magic hands and I don’t relish the idea of looking for new ones. Dr. Rossi informed me she had found a suspicious lump in my breast, and that I would have to see experts as soon as possible.
In shock, I had to inform my family and boss in Maryland, find somewhere to stay for an uncertain amount of time, as well as someone to whom I could blurt out my fears. New York is not an easy place to find a shoulder to cry on. People are intent on billing hours and making delta profits. Conversations with frightened friends are not chargeable and have no delta.
For days I was on the phone making appointments and walking the city to meet them. All the while I comforted myself that not one woman in my family had ever had breast trouble, and that this was probably—hopefully—probably—hopefully, just a scare. I had read too much not to know, however, that the overwhelming majority of breast cancers are not genetic, and family history was of no moment once a malignancy was discovered. I did find a friend who lent me her apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but was living in her Toronto pied-a-terre that week, and she was also my chief counsel. She had seen me through my journey from adolescent loose in New York through sober adulthood, and assured me of—what? Not exactly that everything would be okay, but that everything was as okay as it could be right now. I was doing what I could do.
These breasts of mine, they are family heirlooms. They hang large and low, irrespective of the size of the woman who inherits them. Even when I was thin as Kate Moss, I wore a C-cup bra; and when a normal weight, I’m somewhere between a triple D and a G cup. My mother once talked about a breast reduction, but my father grimaced, and that was that. I figured, these are the breasts I was given and I’m going to keep them, which means that I spend a lot of time looking for bras that fit or wearing ill-fitting garments.
My distress making my nonstandard body approximate the Western ideal, I dismissed as foolish vanity; I reasoned that my breasts were genetic burdens, just like flat feet, to be borne like a good girl, with bowed head. These thoughts took a turn when I became pregnant. I hail from a family of legendary breast-feeders. My grandmother was born weighing two pounds, and since she and her twin sister could not suck her mother dripped breast milk into their mouths until they learned to feed on their own. That milk, and their mother’s persistence, nursed them into childhood in an era before incubators or feeding tubes.
Every day of my pregnancy I creamed up my nipples with my grandmother’s ointment, readying my breasts for their destiny. The moment my daughter was given to me, she latched right on – and did not come off. Day and night she pulled on me, in the subway, while giving a class, in the bathroom, anywhere. She nursed through my second pregnancy, and a year into my son’s life. Never did my breasts complain, nor crack, become infected, or hurt. They are triathlon athletes, Olympian performers.
I am thinking of that first time when I lay ready for inspection in the surgeon’s rooms, waiting for the man who would proclaim me well or in need of fixing. I was so nervous, so sorry for these devoted beasts hanging at my side. “Well, you are large,” he opens the conversation, as he checks for lumps. “And you have such a small frame to support them. Don’t you get backaches?” I am offended; with the thousands of mammary glands he examines a year, why must he make snide remarks about mine?
The surgeon finds nothing awry. He says that the fibers that make up the breast are like noodles that start lumping together with time and gravity and (in my case) heavy usage. A poetic metaphor. But nevertheless, I am immensely relieved. The mammographer and oncologist also find me free of disease, and I can return home unscathed. They caution that with “complex” breasts like mine, it is advisable to make annual rounds of the specialists. I wonder what it might be like to have simple breasts—something like having a simple mind?
My annual breast pilgrimage to New York has now become an opportunity for a private trip together—me and my breasts. At the end of the visit I often feel beaten up and spend too much time in waiting rooms, but otherwise I can wander round the shops, eat in restaurants, treat myself a bit. And feel thankful for the complexity of my mammary glands.
After my son stopped nursing a decade and a half ago, he asked me why my breasts did not just go away. If he had no use for them, he wanted to know why they continued to exist. I could not answer him; it would have been such a relief to have dropped down a size. But now I believe that they remain as a kind of memorial to the selflessness of the woman’s body, the eternal font of life.