I stand in the shower gazing at the softness of my curves, noticing the subtle changes in my body, aware I need to hit the gym later, but know already that won’t happen. The demands of life don’t allow for much downtime. Kids’ lunches, groceries, dinner, cleanup, math homework, drives, client meetings and a report to write. Tomorrow will be a similar version of today, and then it repeats from there. I need a wife. I run my hands across my breasts, a routine driven by necessity, not pleasure. Harmless fibroids I was told, but tender to the touch. How many years has it been? Two? Maybe three? I wasn’t forty yet. The warm water washes over me, providing a short reprieve from the looming list of tasks ahead. I knead the uneven texture of my breast hearing the surgeons warning, “Kristen you need to be diligent about doing regular self-examinations because it will be hard to detect a tumor in either of your dense breasts.” Breasts –seems like such a formal word like something grandma would say. Tits, my go-to for several decades, now almost seems too crass. Boobs –sounds seemingly silly, but I think best describes them. Regardless of the name, I wish mine were bigger, perkier and devoid of painful fibroids.
I quickly massage my chest, aware that I need to get on with my day. My nipple, elongated from years of nursing babies, stands erect as my fingers manipulate the sensitive area until they are met with something foreign. My eyes dart immediately to where my fingers press on the top corner of my breast. I push harder on the irregular lump. What the hell is this? This wasn’t here before…it’s new! And why doesn’t it hurt when I press on it? I think back to the profound sense of relief I had when the surgeon assured us that nothing was seriously wrong with me. I had dodged a huge bullet. What if this time is different?
I glance around the drab waiting room feeling sorry for the young receptionist behind the sliding-glass window. The decor is tired, likely the same shade of industrial blue since the early 1990s. Chipped paint and exposed drywall create a line where metal-framed chairs brush up against the dirty perimeter. The fluorescent light flickers above adding to the overall dreariness. Tattered magazines cover the coffee table. I’m annoyed, realizing I have left my book in the car, but decide against grabbing a germ-laden magazine. I am scheduled for an ultrasound and repeat mammogram, after five long weeks since finding my mystery lump.
I notice the two other people in the room. An elderly lady attempting to navigate her walker in the cramped space and a man who I imagine is her son, clueless to his mother’s immediate needs. She reminds me of my Nana in her later years, not in her appearance, but by the way she carries herself. I can tell she’s feisty.
Nana always approached life with attitude, confidence and, for as long as I can remember, with her large breasts thrust out, leading her, like a peacock strutting with its feathers on full display. Her walk distinctive, which I’m told I’ve inherited. She was stylish and a head-turner. Blonde, buxom, a career woman wearing high heels driving a yellow Camaro, I thought she was the epitome of cool. I know she loved me, even though she didn’t show it in a typical grandmotherly kind of way. My thoughts flutter like a monarch butterfly floating by the lake.
I sit on the turquoise couch at the cottage. Across from me is Nana perched on her red walker, cigarette poised high like she’s Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians. The walker is temporary. She’s recovering from recent hip surgery. Nana stares out the window at Georgian Bay in silence, creating a dramatic pause in her storytelling. My mother is in the glider beside me, a coffee in her hand, her glasses dangling in her deep cleavage from lime glass beads strung around her neck. Zoe lies on the floor colouring, her right bum cheek partially hanging out of her polka-dot bikini. She’s eating a Rice Krispies square my Nana made. The cottage is permanently stocked with sweets and caffeine. Eden sits patiently beside me, her big brown eyes taking in every inch of the room. We are Super Nana’s captive audience. My girls started calling my Nana “Super Nana” to delineate between my mother (their Nana) and my grandmother. Of course, Super Nana loves the title her great-granddaughters bestowed on her. Who wouldn’t?
I notice Eden sniffing the colourful crocheted afghan that lies between us. I’m preoccupied, knowing that any minute the girls will grow restless and want to escape to the beach. I cringe, sensing Eden is about to announce what she thinks of the smoky aroma that permeates everything in the cottage, especially the pungent blanket. She scrunches her nose in disgust, but thankfully holds her tongue. It bothers me that Nana smokes in the cottage when the girls are with her, when she’s fully aware that I have a no-smoking rule at my house in the city. My daughters’ lungs filling with secondhand smoke the same way mine were filled as a child. We are listening to Super Nana complain about her last mammogram. I wonder what the girls think a mammogram actually is? I pass Eden some paper and crayons, hoping she’ll join her sister on the floor and be less engaged in our adult conversation. Eden is an observer, a sponge really, and I sense that she’ll stay put on the couch, not wanting to miss a thing. I was the same at her age.
“The woman was so cruel! She never once warned me that she was starting. She just grabbed my breast and squished it on the plate! You can imagine how that felt… Look!” Nana stands up and flicks her saggy boob up in the air to illustrate her point. “I don’t have anything left!” she adds dramatically.
Eden’s eyes widen, intent on Super Nana’s theatrics, dialed in to see what she’ll do next.
“It really hurt!” Nana whines and then stops to take another drag from her cigarette. We patiently wait for the story to continue.
“I told her she was hurting me. But that didn’t stop her…she kept grabbing me until my boob looked like a pancake. It was awful!” I feel bad for Nana but am fully aware that this is her version of the ill-fated mammogram. The technician would likely have a drastically different tale considering that Nana has a knack for finding the errors of people’s ways.
“Until my reduction I complained for years about back pain from the weight of my breasts and it’s wonderful that I don’t experience that pain anymore. But that plastic surgeon, well, he….” Nana shakes her head, deep in thought and butts her cigarette out in what looks like a pool cue, a trinket she’s likely acquired from the Home Shopping Network. This before the network put her on the “Do Not Sell To” list, a protective measure on their part to address the frequency of Nana’s returned merchandise, purchased on impulse. Nana took great pride in getting a deal or, in her words, “a bar-goon.”
“The surgeon didn’t listen. I mean I went from having a big bust to these.” She looks down at her chest with disdain and flicks her boob once again. “He just took way too much off and now my stomach is bigger than my chest.” Nana places her hand on her stomach and pushes her belly out pronounced like she’s nine months pregnant. Eden giggles beside me.
“Oh, Nana, that’s not true. You are beautiful,” I say. I do think she’s beautiful, but after her breast reduction, something was missing. After all, it’s natural for a voluptuous woman to have big curves. All the women in my family were curvy; either full breasts, broad hips or large bums. Nana no longer led with her upper curves. The peacock had lost her feathers.
“I wish I could chop mine off.” My mother joins in, sipping her coffee. Eden laughs again, now studying my mother in disbelief.
Zoe stops colouring her rainbow. “Nana will I get your big boobs when I’m older?” she says, looking horrified at the thought, now fixated on my mother’s chest.
“Why don’t you want big boobs?” I interject, shocked that my flesh and blood would not share my obsession with having cleavage. Zoe shrugs her shoulders, unsure of what to say. “Do you want small boobs like me, sweetie?” I ask. She nods her head, crawling onto my mother’s lap. Zoe has an inner circle of people who she loves fiercely: Nick (her father), Nana and Papa (my mother and Kerry my stepfather), Aunty Karyn (my sister) and me. But she especially adores my mother.
“Nana’s boobs are fat and jiggly!” Zoe points at my mother’s chest with her sticky marshmallow fingers. We all laugh.
“Yes, Zoe, you’re right, they are fat and jiggly.” She grabs a napkin and attempts to wipe Zoe’s gooey hands.
“I wish a doctor could make mine smaller like Super Nana’s, but my skin overheals. It’s called keloid skin, so my scars would end up bumpy.”
“Yuck!” Eden pipes in, grabbing a square from the plate on the coffee table. I highly doubt after this conversation that my daughters will ever share my desire for large breasts.
I realize I am alone in the waiting room. I was told when I checked in that I was the last appointment of the week. I glance down at my phone, which reads 4:15. I wish I had taken Jon up on his offer to come with me. I downplayed my worry with him this morning, insisted he not miss work and convinced him I could handle the mammogram on my own.
I hear my name bringing me back from my thoughts. A petite technician stands at the entrance to the waiting area calling out to the empty room. “Kristen?” she queries. Clearly, it’s me. There’s no one else here. I follow her down the hall into a cramped room at the end of the narrow corridor. I disrobe and stand topless, not knowing what to do with my hands, the entire time watching the technician prepare the impressive mammogram machine between us.
“I have to warn you I have cold hands,” she says apologetically, and then pulls my right boob down onto the plate. I imagine what Nana would say if she was here with me. I feel like a cow being milked from my deflated teat. Thankfully she takes the X-ray quickly, as I can’t endure another second of the pinching. We repeat the process on the other side. I’m sure it’s the fibroids that cause me so much discomfort but it’s the one single lump that monopolizes my thoughts.
I am then escorted to the ultrasound room where I lie down in a dark room, studying the water-stained ceiling, while a different technician prepares me for my ultrasound.
“I’m going to put gel on your chest, which will be a bit cool at first,” the perky technician explains. The gel cools my skin, causing goose bumps to crawl up my arms and I shiver.
“Now I’m…” She pauses to yawn and grabs a long, white, plastic wand that looks like a giant dildo. “Sorry I’m yawning,” she says, “I just flew back from seeing my boyfriend in Australia.” She smiles. “I’m going to use this X-ray wand, which will allow me to capture images on the screen in front of me. These will later be reviewed by the radiologist.” She yawns again.
As she begins, I politely ask her how she met her Aussie. While she gushes about her love story, I scan her face for signs of concern as she reads my images on the screen in front of her. She stops talking. The room falls silent for twenty seconds. Oh God, why is she quiet? I can barely breathe with anticipation of her next words.
“Do you have any children?” she asks. Is she asking me this because she sees something bad and wants to understand my family dynamics or is she simply making idle chitchat because she sees a harmless cyst? Shit, this is driving me crazy!
“Yes, we do. We have four kids between the two of us. My husband Jon, and I married four years ago and blended our two families. My stepson, Josh, goes to Queen’s, my stepdaughter, Tasha, is in high school, and my girls, Eden and Zoe are turning twelve and ten.”
The technician seems impressed. “Wow, you must be busy!” I thank God for the lack of sympathy registering on her face.
“Yes, our house is incredibly busy…and loud.”
She passes me paper towel to clean up my gelled chest and explains that the results will be sent to my doctor in three-to-five business days. I dress, thank her and leave. I check my phone as I get to my car. Jon has called three times, wanting to make sure I’m okay. I stop for a brief second and wonder in fact if I am okay? I better be. I suddenly feel the need to talk to my mother. I want to prepare her for what may be coming. I hate to worry her, though, if this turns out to be just another cyst.
My mom and I sit side by side in our beach chairs soaking up the sun. It’s the Victoria Day weekend, the official start to cottage season. We’ve just left my cousin’s baby shower, where we spent the afternoon with a dozen relatives laughing and reminiscing about growing up each summer in Balm Beach on Georgian Bay. The busyness of the afternoon allows me to forget my worry for extended blips of time. Jon and my stepkids are in Oakville since eight of us in Mom and Kerry’s house make for a cramped night, so we decided to divide and conquer. The girls are posing at the shoreline on a mission to capture the perfect photo to post to a thousand of their closest friends. They never seem to tire of this process. I look down at my red bikini top, thinking about the mass that lies just below my skin. I’m stewing…I don’t know how to casually broach the topic with my mother.
“So…I had a mammogram and ultrasound yesterday.” I say, trying to sound light, my eyes fixated on my book that’s remained on the same page for over an hour.
“Oh, sweetie, that’s never fun. Are your fibroids bothering you?” my mother asks while watching Zoe’s long legs flail about in the water as she does cartwheels.
“I noticed a new lump about a month ago, so I saw my doctor and she suggested we check it out just to be safe. I should get the results end of next week.” I nonchalantly glance toward my mother, avoiding direct eye contact.
“Well, let me know, so I don’t worry. That reminds me, I need to book a mammogram, as well. It’s just a routine check. I’ve been so busy with work, though, I totally forgot.”
My mom is as absentminded as was Mim, my great-grandmother. Mim would frequently tear up the cottage, looking for her reading glasses, which she would later find perched on her head or tucked in her EE-cup bra. She always had a piece of tissue peeking out the front of her blouse, her bra acting as convenient storage for things she may need throughout the day, like her nitro pills or glasses. Her memory loss became more pronounced in her eighties, but she managed to live independently in her final years, a few blocks from our house in Kitchener.
When visiting Mim, it wasn’t uncommon to find her phone in the fridge and the milk left on the counter in its place. Before the Ministry of Transportation refused to renew her driver’s license, driving with her was like an extreme sport.
She could barely see over the steering wheel. She sat on a phone book with her big Jackie O glasses covering half her face, her blond wig a little off-kilter, her floral puffy blouse poorly camouflaging her enormous pointy boobs, and her oversize white purse sandwiched beside her, one handle sticking straight up, the other bent between the seat belts. My sister and cousins sprawled in the backseat with room to spare in the giant blue Oldsmobile. I was always stuck in the front terrified for my life as Mim barely missed tree after tree along the narrow beach road, the side view mirror just millimeters from being smashed to smithereens.
Grace, Mim’s given name, was a compassionate, loving woman, who without her wig resembled the Queen Mum. She didn’t have a medical reason to wear wigs; she chose to wear them for aesthetics. Willowdene Grace was the name she gave her daughter (my Nana) and four generations later I named my daughters Eden Grace and Zoe Willow after these two wonderful but dramatically different women.
“I’m sure the results will show another cyst,” I respond to my mother, trying to sound confident. Eden approaches us with her pink camera in her hand. “Don’t forget to book your mammogram, Mom, it’s important.” I say glancing toward my mother.
“Nana, can you take our picture please?” Eden is in front of our chairs, blocking our sun. She’s like a dog with a bone when she wants something and is smart enough to ask my mother not me. I study her long toned legs, tiny waist and perky chest. She looks like a teenager not a twelve-year-old. Her bikini looks completely different on her today than it did a year ago. It’s hard to forget the sweet four-year-old Eden, bandana on her head, a rogue curl falling on her forehead, a shovel in her hand, squatting in her purple floral bikini, building a sand castle. Where does the time go?
“Eden, leave Nana alone please, she just sat down to read,” Eden glares at me. Zoe continues to bounce around the beach behind her sister, in perpetual motion, singing the entire time.
“That’s all right. I don’t mind, but you’re going to have to show me how to work your camera. You know me and technology, I’m useless.” My mother takes a few moments to push her body out of the chair, her breasts hang forward first, followed by her scarred knees (from many surgeries) that manage to push her body to a somewhat erect position. As she snaps pictures of the girls I notice that her back remains hunched from the weight of her breasts pulling on the front of her body. Her bobbed hair is gray, no longer espresso brown. Her face lights up as she watches her granddaughters’ splash in the water. She divides her attention equally, making both girls feel special. In that moment she reminds me so much of Mim; it’s like watching her ghost.
Nine o’clock Tuesday morning, my phone rings, the display reads “Sheddon Medical Clinic.” My stomach turns. “Oh, this is not good!” I say out loud to myself.
“Hi Kristen, it’s Dr. Cooper, I have the results from your tests and wanted to connect with you.”
“That was a really quick turnaround!” I say my heart racing, “I just had the tests Friday… I imagine this can’t be good news.”
“Well, Kristen, we don’t know that yet. I would like the radiologist to review your film and then determine if you require a needle biopsy. Please call the lab and ask them to transfer the film over to the hospital today if possible. If they’re unable to do that, then I suggest you pick it up and deliver it yourself.” I feel sick.
“Okay… I can do that…no problem.” Wait…she said, needle. I hate needles! “What exactly is involved with a needle biopsy?”
“The radiologist views the breast using ultrasound and then extracts several samples.” Shit.
“Thank you for the call. I appreciate it.” I hang up and remain silent for a few minutes in a catatonic state. My computer still on my lap, my briefcase open, papers scattered haphazardly around me. The list of urgent matters evaporates. My God, what if I have cancer?
The next week is hell. I wait and wait for the phone to ring, unable to escape the negative thoughts monopolizing my brain. I finally break down and call the hospital to find out what the delay is. I’m told the radiologist hasn’t reviewed my film. I want to scream, “I might have breast cancer, lady. You’re telling me someone can’t take two minutes and look at my bloody images!” Instead, I fight back tears and politely hang up. I’m so anxious and preoccupied that it’s hard to concentrate on work or what Jon and the kids say to me. I’m on autopilot, marinating in worry; a smiling bobble head, acting engaged, though I’m consumed with dread.
I finally receive a call from the hospital a full week after the department received the images. I’m told I have a June 3 appointment, where I’ll undergo an ultrasound-guided needle biopsy.
“Do you need a moment before I take the next sample?” the radiologist asks. I lay on the table with the biopsy underway, worries blasting through my brain like a bad movie trailer. I feel light-headed. The blood is draining from my face. “Yes, please,” I respond. Jon had insisted on coming to the hospital, but he was scheduled to be in Ottawa and I made him promise not to change his flights. He wouldn’t agree until I swore I would bring someone with me to my appointment. I asked Heidi, my sister-in-law, since three of her closest friends were breast cancer survivors, so this was not her first rodeo. Heidi was born to care for people, a stay-at-home mom, patient, loving and always available to help others. She has an easy approach to life, which I admire. I think being married to twin brothers provides us with a deep understanding and closeness with one another. After the samples are collected, I get dressed still feeling woozy and meet Heidi in the waiting area. Greeted by her sympathetic expression, I break down and cry. I have bottled all my emotions for over a month, the worry, the fear, and I let it go.
“I’m so scared!”
“Oh, Kristen, everything will be okay.” Heidi reaches for my hand.