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Janis Ian Advocate Cover

Me & My Mammogram

Originally published in The Advocate
Issue #675, February 1995

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 wuld have a cure for the common cold by now. I am very, 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, read it aloud to my partner, 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'm afraid if I don't touch them 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 during fourth grade, causing girls to snicker in the showers and boys to bump 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. They hurt, too, and when I began wearing a bra the straps cut into my shoulders and back every time I stretched. 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 much envy from A-cupped women who don't know all the problems they cause.

We called the doctor and arranged for more tests as quickly as possible "just in case". The doctor said it was routine, not to worry, go ahead and take our vacation. So we went, and by tacit agreement we tried to avoid the subject for a week. Impossible.

I spent our vacation wondering how a double-mastectomy would look in a bathing suit, whether it would solve my weight problems and eliminate lower back pain. I went to the library in search of solace and found mainly statistics that surprised me: in 1993 60,562 cases of AIDs were diagnosed in the United States, and 182,000 cases of breast cancer.

Three times as many people got breast cancer as got AIDs? Why wasn't I aware of this? I read more, and begin to acknowledge 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 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 charitable 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 only place I can "get everything done at once". As if I weren't already paranoid enough, I step off the elevator into a room littered with funereal flower arrangements and reeking of potpourri. The lamps are turned low; no flourescents here. I smell an overabundance of air freshener in the gloomy reception area; the smell is probably designed to cover any lingering smell of female terror. There's a huge cross on the wall, and books with titles like Finding peace through Christ and Abstinence for children – it's never too soon to start! I'm already offended.

"Calm down", my partner says. "We're here for radiology, not decorating classes". She advises me to take a deep breath. I can't. What if it affects the results?

I approach a receptionist disguised as Florence Nightingale, with long permed hair sprayed in the front to simulate wings. She hands me the clinic's card ("Just For Her -- putting the YOU back in Special!!") and asks how I'm feeling. What a stupid question.

"I'm fine, it's just my mammogram that has a problem". She quickly escorts us to the waiting area and I browse through the literature on display, trying not to be judgemental. 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 so far, Your Breasts -- What Jesus Has To Say.

"I'd be more interested in Mary's opinion" mutters Mr. L. For a moment, our laughter covers our tension. Then we remember why we're here. We sit, fingers crossed, waiting for judgement.

The technician is cheerfully appropriate, explaining procedures and machinery with a set speech that glitters like the small gold cross on her lapel. "Hey, if I had pierced nipples would I have to remove my earrings?" I ask -- my version of whistling in the dark. She looks non-plussed but is eager to keep me "comfie", and smiles reassuringly as we peel off the gown.

"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, is this what they learn in medical school nowadays? I'm a songwriter, I reply, and a singer. It feels very strange to be talking about my profession while my breasts are dangling from someone's hand.

"Sang anything I'd recognize?" I mumble something about a song called "At Seventeen," feeling oddly naked.

"Oh wow, you're Janis IAN. I read about you!" Oh great, a fan. I wonder if she read any articles about my coming out. Or saw me on television, talking about my partner and my lesbianism.

She looks so happy to have a semi-famous person in hand, and she grins and says "In fact, I just saw you on Entertainment Tonight, talking about your...". She looks at my breast. She looks at her hand holding my breast. She looks slightly ill.

I get through the rest of the exam by pretending I'm Hotheaded Paisan, Homicidal Lesbian Maniac, doing undercover work for a ring of women bent on rounding off the edges of all mammogram machines. I picture myself destroying the husband who left his wife two months after her diagnosis, saying her breasts had always been the main attraction. I destroy the woman 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? Do these people know what they're doing?

And all the while a mantra is repeating in the back of my head: "I want to live. I just want to live. Please, God, let me live."

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