Why I Write
WEEKENDER | Wed, 03/31/2010 4:12 PM |
Let me tell you about my lump.
When I was 21, a doctor’s exam revealed a tiny lump in my breast, so small that I hadn’t been able to feel it myself until the doctor guided my hand to the exact spot a few centimeters below my right nipple. The lump was smooth, hard-edged, disk-shaped.
I remember my first reaction was one of embarrassment. The doctor was an old man, a stranger, as I’d only gone to him for this physical required in those days to get my visa to go teach in China, and I hated having him become so much more familiar with my body than I was.
My embarrassment soon turned into a new emotion: anxiety. Yes, it’s true. Just as the recent US Preventative Services Task Force report said, we women do tend to feel anxious when a lump shows up in one of our breasts.
The doctor guessed mine might be a cyst, and during another appointment tried to aspirate it, which was excruciatingly painful and fruitless. My stubborn lump slipped around and refused to deflate.
As I was preparing to graduate from college, I ignored the doctor’s recommendation for a biopsy and instead went to Nanjing after getting my degree.
I was 21 and breast cancer was too terrifying to contemplate. I hadn’t known anyone who had died of the disease, but a friend of my mother’s had had a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and years of therapy for the continual side effects of having had her lymph nodes removed as well as the muscles of her chest wall. She used to call my mother when I was in elementary school, and I’d listen to my mother’s end of the conversation as I did my homework at the kitchen table. Their conversations always ended the same way, with my mother promising her friend, “I’m praying to the Blessed Mother for you.”
When I asked my mother a question, wanted a word defined – “What’s lymphedema?”, for instance – my mother would only shake her head. “Poor Margaret. She’s really suffering,” she’d say and change the subject.
I didn’t learn much about breast cancer that way except the most important thing that all of us women learn from a very young age: that breast cancer was a fearsome disease. Breast cancer meant deformation and unimaginable pain. It was also vaguely shameful, meant to be whispered about even when my father and brother were not around. Like menstruation and cramps. Like women who’d had abortions.
I remember Nancy Reagan expressing relief that her own breast cancer had been discovered only late in life, after she was long married. The implication was that a young woman was better off dead rather than alive and “unattractive” after a mastectomy.
My mother’s friend Margaret, by the way, had gone through a divorce after her own cancer was discovered.
This was my introduction into the Sisterhood of Secrets, the pain and fear that women have learned to keep to themselves.
And thus, good girl that I was at 21, I didn’t want to think about breast cancer, so I decided to ignore the lump and go about my life.
But the lump didn’t go away.
Jump forward a few years.
By the time I was nearly 24 and about to graduate with my master’s degree, my lump had grown. It was no longer a disk, not the pea shape it had been at the start of the semester. Now it felt like a walnut, except with a smooth shell.
My anxiety had grown as well.
In the back of my mind, I was always conscious of It being there, my very own Body Snatcher, growing inside me, slipping around under the skin of my right breast. I didn’t so much check my breasts when I took a shower as I learned to fixate on It. Pressing on my lump, while holding my breath as my heart thundered in my ears, I felt as though I’d put my finger on a land mine, and that if I moved, I would surely die.
It was not convenient, this lump, any more than it had been when I was 21.
I was going to enter a PhD program in the fall. I was supposed to go to language school to learn Japanese over the summer. Otherwise I’d be falling behind before I’d even begun at the Ivy League graduate school that had accepted me on a full fellowship.
I’d told some friends, female friends – not my boyfriend, who hadn’t found the lump actually. Or maybe he just thought it was part of my anatomy. Maybe he was too polite to mention it. We didn’t talk about It at any rate.
But my girlfriends and I, we talked. One of them called me from St. Louis out of the blue on a Saturday morning. “Did you see the obituary of the 24-year-old woman who died of breast cancer? You should get your lump checked.”
I thought she was rude. To imply I had cancer, to imply I too could die.
“My doctor thinks it’s probably nothing. He said the edges are too hard.”
“Get a second opinion,” she said.
Now I wasn’t just anxious, I was obsessed. I became convinced I had cancer. I didn’t think I was going to die – I was 23, no one at 23 thinks of death, believe me, but I thought I was going to suffer. I was going to be deformed. I was going to lose the boyfriend. This lump was going to ruin my life.
Apparently at 23, irony eluded me completely.
I couldn’t concentrate anymore on my plans. Suddenly, getting a PhD in Chinese architectural art history – my obsession since my first trip to China as an 18-year-old when I fell in love with the eaves of the Summer Palace – seemed like an old flame who’d returned after an absence and was not the dashing fellow I remembered. The passion that had pushed me to learn to read both vernacular and classical Chinese, that had enabled me to stay up nights and weekends poring over Song dynasty woodcut prints of artists’ biographies while my friends went out partying, that had propelled my academic career thus far, had left me.
Suddenly I was the weepy girl in the French movie realizing her affair is over.
But unlike Mme. Bovary, I did the pragmatic thing.
I called my personal physician in Denver, scheduled a biopsy for the summer, canceled my plans for summer school, and told my adviser that I might need to take the fall off for health reasons. She told me I was going to fall behind in my studies, and that I couldn’t take fall semester off or I’d lose my fellowship. I had to start the program “on time”, she stressed. If I really needed, I could take spring semester off to deal with my health problems.
And this is when the Good Girl in me died forever and the Tough Woman awakened.
I applied to a different academic program, one where I could pursue my dream career of writing that I always thought was too impractical, too farfetched for a girl like me. I informed my future PhD adviser that I was withdrawing from the program.
She called me frantically to tell me I was making a mistake. I heard her voice on the answering machine. She said I would regret my decision.
I didn’t pick up and I didn’t call her back. Ever.
A few weeks after my graduation, my mother accompanied me to my biopsy. A 6-centimeter fibroid adenoma was removed from my right breast. Non-cancerous.
There were side effects from the surgery. I threw up from the anesthesia for 12 hours the next day. For weeks, my breast hurt like hell literally every time I took a step.
But I had my life back. I didn’t have cancer. And I’d been accepted into the creative writing program.
That lump saved me from ruining my life. It gave me the courage to stop being so damn good – read: self-effacing – and concentrate on my writing.
My mother wasn’t so lucky. Nor were my grandmothers or their mothers before them. Faced with the prospect of long lives and many obligations, they pushed their personal dreams to that far-off place of “someday” and “when I have time”, which for them turned out to be Never.
So learn from my lump. If you have a dream, don’t wait to pursue it.
+ May-lee Chai