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Me and my mammogram

By Janis Ian

I am standing with my tit caught in a wringer while a mall-haired technician tells me to relax. I am thinking that if men had to put their testicles in a vise as part of a yearly physical, we would have a cure for the common cold by now. I am very frightened.

The pink slip came as we were leaving on vacation: "We have found what appears to be a routine abnormality..." What's routine about an abnormality? I decide to put on a brave front and joke that in all my life no one has ever called me routine; then I burst into tears. Later on I do the grown-up thing and panic, furtively examining my breasts in the mirror for changes. I'm afraid that if I touch them to check for lumps, I will set something off. I wish they were smaller. I wish they were removable. I wish they were on anyone but me.

I'm attached to these breasts. They appeared almost overnight in fourth grade, causing girls to snicker in the showers and boys to bump into me in the hallways. They were very large and got in the way a lot, making it hard for me to insist on playing Robin Hood to my brother's Maid Marion and impossible for me to continue gymnastics. I had no idea why they were there, and I wished they'd go away. Eventually we reconciled, and they mushroomed from my mother's prosaic B cup to a global double D, settling in somewhere between my armpits and my knees. And there they have remained, the object of much pleasure to Mr. Lesbian and me and much envy from A-cupped women who don't know all the problems they cause.

We call the doctor before leaving and arrange from more tests as quickly as possible on our return, "just in case." I spend our vacation wondering how a double mastectomy will look in a bathing suit, whether it will solve my weight problems and eliminate lower back pain. I go to the library in search of solace and find statistics: In 1993 about 60,000 cases of AIDS were diagnosed in the United States as compared to 182,000 cases of breast cancer. Three times as many? Why wasn't I aware of this? I realize how many friends I've lost to this disease in the last five years. I am at higher risk than some: large breasts, no pregnancies, living in the "fat belt" of the South. How strange to think that I wanted my dog to have a litter so she'd be low-risk. I regret my own infertility even more.

We network, discovering that most women share my dread, hearing horror stories about everything from leaking saline to "and seven years later it showed up in both lungs, and she went in a month." I wonder how it is that with all the benefits I do, I've never been asked to do one for breast cancer research. "AIDS is a sexy cause," the fund-raiser I question tells me. "There's nothing sexy about a breastless woman." What? Clothes make the man; breasts make the woman? "AIDS is a disease of love; breast cancer's a disease of chance," a psychologist explains. "That's why people don't respond to it." Well, I'm certainly responding.

We go to the only women's clinic in Nashville, coincidentally the one place I can "get everything done at once." I step off the elevator into a room littered with funeral flower arrangements and reeking of potpourri - an overabundance of air freshener designed to cover any lingering smell of female terror. I'm already offended. "Calm down," my partner says, "we're here for radiology, not decorating classes." I browse through the literature on display, trying not to be judgmental. Mastectomy: How to Tell Your Husband. Family Needs During Trying Times, with father, mother, son, and daughter smiling whitely from the cover. And my favorite: Your Breasts -- What Jesus Has to Say. "I'd be more interested in Mary's opinion," mutters Mr. L.

The technician is appropriately cheerful. "Hey, if I were pierced, would I have to remove my nipple rings?" I ask her -- my version of whistling in the dark. She is eager to keep me "comfy" and smiles reassuringly. "What do you do for a living?" she asks, hefting my left breast. I explain my profession as she feels around. Lift and flop, lift and flop. "Sang anything I'd recognize?" I mumble something about a song called "At Seventeen." "Oh, wow, you're Janis Ian! I read about you!" I wonder if she read any articles about my coming out. "I saw you on Entertainment Tonight, talking about --" She looks at my breast. She looks at her hand holding my breast. She looks slightly ill.

I get through the rest by pretending I'm doing undercover work for a ring of women bent on rounding off the sharp edges of all mammogram machines. I picture myself destroying the husband who left his wife two months after her diagnosis. I destroy the women who kept explaining why, metaphysically, her partner needed breast cancer now to learn a vital lesson for her next life. I destroy the doctor who is assaulting my chest, looking for lumps while kneading any that might have been there into my throat. Can it spread this way? I wonder. All the while a mantra is repeating in the back of my head: I want to live. I just want to live.

We are lucky; I'm all right. The proverbial fatty tissue. We exit laughing, giddy with relief, grateful for air filling our lungs. I resolve to eat less fat and red meat, to exercise more. I have a future. We have a future.

Or as Mr. Lesbian says: "I thought this was supposed to be a humor column; there's nothing funny about this." And that about sums it up.


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