Breasts are big part of my life. I still call them “breasts” and resist “boobs” or “boobies” which I find derogatory and demeaning. After all, a “boob” was always a buffoon or the class clown and not a flattering title. So, I skip this modern lingo, but, I digress. I am a board certified lactation consultant and so day in and day out I work with mamas, babies and breasts. Large breasts, small breasts, overflowing-with-milk breasts and not-enough-milk breasts, tattooed breasts, asymmetrical breasts, underdeveloped breasts, pendulous breasts, floppy breasts, firm breasts, breasts expanded with implants, breasts that have been reduced, flat nipples, inverted nipples, everted nipples, sore nipples, abraded nipples, pierced nipples, big nipples, tiny nipples, nipples that have been moved, and nipples that are different from each other. I touch breasts, squeeze breasts, press on plugged ducts, use reverse pressure softening, palpate breasts, aim nipples into babies’ mouths, apply ointment to sore nipples, fit breasts comfortably into the hard plastic flanges on a breast pump and fit breasts comfortably into nursing bras with anticipation for growth. So, breasts and their wellbeing are the stuff of my daily life. I love what I do and am honored and humbled to be a part of a most vulnerable and magical time in a woman’s life. I never tire of the bliss a baby finds at a working breast getting plenty of milk, and it is a sight nearly as glorious as birth. For me personally, it is often a moment that I feel closest to God!
I suppose the 30+ years I have been involved with breastfeeding, both participating in and assisting with, have made me respect these female body parts with an almost religious reverence. I mean, it is pretty damned awesome that a woman’s body can grow and feed a human being from within for nine months and produce a complete and viable person! Just as awesome to me, is that following that deliverance, she can continue to sustain this human life simply by bringing her baby to her breasts some 10-12 times a day for the first few weeks and less often for the duration of her breastfeeding relationship. I need not dwell on the nearly super human things that breastmilk can do for a small being and his mother, because that is not what this is about. But, suffice to say, that every day, I remain respectful and entranced by the glory of women’s breasts and the life giving milk they produce. Breasts are good, very, very good.
Yesterday, I met with my sister in the diagnostic mammogram waiting area at UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I have been in this room before for myself and for my sister. This is the room of terror. It is a purgatory of sorts. Women of all ages, come to prepare themselves for the worst. This is where one goes for a “diagnostic mammogram” when something of interest or concern has been noticed on the plain and simple mammogram. This is a room where probably more bargaining and begging with God has taken place than in most churches. There is so much tension and anxiety in this room, that typically, no one speaks. The television is off, the magazines go unread, hands are folded and eyes look at the floor or one’s hands while rings are turned and hands are wrung. Today, my sister is the one who others look away from, because she is the wearer of the head covering. She looks great, healthy with eyebrows and lashes still intact after eight rounds of chemo, but she has the scarf which signals baldness and that can only mean one thing in this room—breast cancer.
My sister and I talk. We talk a lot and often. We share a difficult and painful childhood at the hands of a mentally ill mother. We diagnosed her ourselves and quite accurately at that. She was a borderline personality with bipolar tendencies and what a ride that was! The “Glass Castle” didn’t have much on us! We are the only siblings in our family and we have been through many things together including the life and death of both parents. We share an ironic and sarcastic sense of humor and the Gaelic gift of story telling. But, here, today, we are speaking softly as if to not disturb the ruminations taking place in each mind in the room. The silence is deafening.
A volunteer comes in the room and says the same thing over and over, “Are you wearing any deodorant today? If so, there are towelettes in the booth for you to use. Go into the booth, remove all clothing except for your underwear. Place everything in the plastic bag and then into one of these lockers. Take your key with you and if you forget your locker number, you will find it on the key. Sit and wait until you are called.” We are all very obedient here because we think that maybe if we behave real well, we get a reprieve. I ache for these women. I ache for all women who worry about their breasts as if they are cancers waiting to happen, and in fact, they are not. They are mostly life-giving. But, the one in nine figure is frightening and real and completely intimidating. And in this room, no one is really thinking of their breasts as blessings. These are not for the moment, “good breasts” but potentially “bad breasts.”
In a way, I think that my sweet and beautiful sister, Alice is in a better place than the other women waiting. She already knows the die has been cast and she has begun working on the repair and renewal. She has successfully finished eight rounds of chemo and kept everything about her beauty and brains except for her bright red hair. Being a red head is not just a hair color, but, a tag line. It’s “Hey red!” throughout your life from childhood on. So, for her it was a somewhat greater loss but one she believes will return. Now, her next step is surgery to remove one breast and the tainted lymph nodes as well. After that, comes six weeks of radiation and by mid-summer – the reprieve and hopefully, the return of good health and a long life to follow. This is no walk in the park for anyone, but my brave sister seems to be facing it and dealing with it, with the one step at a time dogma.
I offer my support, my love, my empathy to my sister but, no matter what, this is a lone journey as some others in life can be. There are times when only fellow travelers speak the same language as you, and despite all the care and love around you, it is a foreign country to most of us. This is the cathedral of the women with breast cancer and they know the prayers, the intensity, the fear, and the mortality wake up call of it all. They march forward as a unit and as yet another private club in life that no one really signs up to join. But, march forward they do. After all, these are women, we are speaking of and we know that God did not fool around when he made women!