Fear and Loathing in Breast Exams

Fear and Loathing in Breast Exams
Note: I have been meaning to write about my personal experience for Breast Cancer Awareness Month for a while now and, well, I’ve finally gone and done it. Take care of yourself.

First, listen. (It fits, promise.)

I’ve had a fear of my own chest since I hit puberty.

From the age of 14, I had to deal with… breasts. I’d like to start off with saying that the idea of becoming a woman did not excite me, like it did some of the other girls I went to school with. I grew up trying to fit in with older brothers and their friends, so the notion of having cleavage and wearing a bra disgusted me. To put it more simply, I was more of a Roberta than a Teeny. I hid when changing for lacrosse practice and always wore high neck shirts (luckily, turtle necks were so in, thank u 90s/00s). And I never let anyone tell me that maybe I needed a real bra instead of the at-this-point-way-too-small cotton training bra I had been wearing in hopes that it might force my chest to regress back to flatness, the way I liked it.

Being a woman was scary, this was something I was aware of even at 14 years old. Every time something happened to me where I was maturing away from being a girl, I was struck with panic. Maybe it had something to do with being raised by my dad and not quite knowing how to start the conversation of buying a bra or maxi pads (author’s note: both were so awkward), but the whole idea of any of it scared the hell out of me and I would have taken a hard pass if it were at all possible.

Still, the gynecologist’s office opened up doors for me. Here was a lady who just knew things I wanted to know. Like information about birth control (can I get some?) and STDs (how does one keep from getting one?) and sex (what even?), all of these things that, by age 17, I’d heard of but never had before (thank goodness, amirite, dad?). Though this new woman in my life had become a beacon of hope and information, all of my appointments are riddled with anxiety and nerves.

Years later, I learn that my aunt (my mother’s twin sister) has fought and survived breast cancer. Suddenly, my breast exams leave me even more tense than before. I wait in agony as my doctor feels around, for her to inevitably feel the lump in my breast that I always assume is there, just waiting to be discovered. I plead with the universe, I never wanted these things, anyway!

Then, my mother is diagnosed with and survives ovarian cancer. My cancer riskometer (not a thing), rises exponentially. I’m in college and when a guy feels me up, I worry about him finding a lump that the doctor may have missed.

“Are you performing breast exams on yourself regularly?” Doctor Kathy asks me, routinely.

“Yes,” I lie, routinely.

I sit in my paper gown with sweaty palms during every appointment, unsure of whether Doctor Kathy could ever understand that I can’t feel my own breasts for lumps because I harbor so much fear of finding what I’m looking for.

Finally, it is suggested that I should get genetic testing. (And not just me, but my brothers, as well. Because the BRCA-1 and -2 gene can be passed through men but it also increases the risk of testicular and prostate cancer.) I sit on this information for yearsYears and years. (Fine, I’ll tell you. Eight years.) I spend hours breaking down in tears over the idea of it. As a teenager, I was so sure that naivety was the way to go. What I don’t know can’t hurt me. But man, that doesn’t work with cancer. It just doesn’t. The fear of my chest, that I have dealt with since I was a teenager, forced me into realizing that knowledge = power. Also, knowledge = health insurance covering more frequent screenings for women at risk for these vicious female cancers.

I made an appointment for what felt like lightyears away and began filling out paperwork with information I have just about memorized by heart — Mother: ovarian cancer at 47, BRCA-2 pos. Maternal Aunt: breast cancer at 45, BRCA-2 pos. Maternal Grandmother: breast cancer at 44. And there are other far-flung familial relations that I’d never met or even heard of who lived in the wake of this genetic material climbing its way through our family tree.

When the day finally came, it was as cloudy and gray as my headspace had been. It really only involved giving blood and playing the waiting game. And I waited in a kind of daze because 95% of me had resigned to the fact that I had this mutation in me. But it was the other 5% of me hoping to beat the odds that was left just a little bit devastated when the results came back:


[del-i-teer-ee-uh s]
injurious to health


The word has stuck with me ever since I first read it. It’s just so fucking ugly. And yet, I found a strange amount of clarity in seeing it in my test results. I felt lucky that it’s not the more aggressive strain BRCA-1, lucky that I now know what I’m looking for (sorta), lucky that now my health coverage would allow me to be more vigilant. Because having the gene doesn’t mean you will get cancer, and not having the gene doesn’t mean you won’t get cancer.

Recently, I mentioned the results of the test to someone. Oh, I’m so sorry, they said, with a sorrowful click of their tongue. Don’t feel sorry for me, I wanted to tell them. If my body is a temple, then perhaps it can also be a fortress. In which case, I’ll need all the defensive intel and strategy I can get in order to keep these BRCA bastards at bay.

For more info on genetic testing and counseling: MSKCC
Header image is a gif from this video