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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

I’m staring up at a ceiling of white acoustic tiles.

Why is there always one stained from a water leak?

A Barenaked Ladies song plays through the overhead speakers.

How ironic, during a mammography and in a medical-imaging lab where many of the patients are (somewhat) barenaked ladies?

If I had a million dollars

The radio station crackles – who listens to the radio anymore?

Why am I crying?

Stop crying you idiot, I furiously wipe away the tear leaking from my left eye.

Everything is going to be fine.

Calcification. That doesn’t sound so scary. Lumps. Lumps sound scary.

COVID-19. That’s scary. Nothing like contemplating the potential beginning of an illness in the height of a global pandemic.

If I had a million dollars (if I had a million dollars)

I’d buy you a K-car (a nice Reliant automobile)

Why is this song so irresistible? You sing along even when you don’t want to. Even now I’m tuned into these lyrics instead of letting myself think about what this follow-up mammogram and ultrasound might mean.

What the hell is calcification anyway? It looked like minuscule white dots trapped inside the outline of my breast on the screen. Like tiny pinpricks of starlight. How can light be bad? I thought the dark was supposed to be bad.

It wasn’t the word or the visual I was prepared for.

Let’s be honest, I wasn’t prepared for any of this.

I didn’t want to think about it – I just read the letter and stuck the newfound knowledge of my dense breast tissue into the back of my brain. Not just dense, the most dense rating they have, BI-RADS D.

It sounds impressive. Who knew? Is that why they’ve held up longer than others?

Is this the opposite of a silver lining?

Like, sure you can have a decent-looking pair until you’re 50, but then there’s a price to pay.

Shouldn’t I have been told about the tax? Would the bargain have been worth it?

Calcification. That’s what Heidi in mammography just said to me.

I was so stupefied I didn’t even ask her what it meant. Do I eat too much yogurt?

Why didn’t I ask her what it meant?

I’m such a wallflower in situations like these.

Why don’t I demand information?

I know why. I hate being pushy. It makes me uncomfortable to even think about making someone else uncomfortable.

That’s what it will say on my gravestone. She was nice … to a fault. Or wait, even better: She was nice, until she was dead.

But, to be fair, it’s hard to ask a stranger a question when you’re standing topless in front of them. A bit of a power imbalance at play there.

How can these tiny dots hurt me when they were so small they needed to be magnified?

This is just a mistake, right? Overly cautious. Excellent preventive screening. I should be happy to live in a country with such a great health care system.

Why am I still crying?

One in eight. That’s why, you idiot. One in eight women will develop breast cancer.

What if it’s me?

But what if it isn’t me? Which of my seven friends would I wish it on instead?

Russian roulette. Step right up, ladies.

If I had a million dollars (if I had a million dollars)

I’d buy you a fur coat (but not a real fur coat that’s cruel)

Why did the ultrasound lady ask if I’d ever had surgery on my breasts?

What is she seeing on the screen that would make her ask that?

Stop crying.

Oh my God will you stop crying, you fool. Please get it together before the radiologist comes in. She’s going to review what they’ve seen today.

Great. So here I lay, half-naked with ultrasound gel on my left breast. Potentially about to hear good news or devastatingly scary news. Alone.

How dramatic to be so exposed and without support.

And why is it always the women who carry the pain?

It doesn’t seem to be an equal load. Why is that?

Also, why did I put on my nicest bra this morning? No one even saw it.

You go straight into the cotton gown – keep it open to the back – and walk around between rooms feeling the air on your spine.

When I got dressed this morning, I looked at myself in the mirror and wondered if this was going to be the last time I didn’t see an enemy.

What if this was the last time these breasts felt soft and powerful, in the embrace of the beautiful fabric in the one and only bra that doesn’t poke into me after a few hours?

What if this was the last time I looked at myself and felt desirable instead of sick?

Such a funny relationship you have with your breasts. You desperately want them to arrive when you are young. You are terrified when they do arrive. You learn to understand their power in the eyes that follow them.

You learn to find pleasure in them. Alone, and with company.

You learn to find your power outside of them.

You fight your whole life to find a suitable enhancement or muting for them.

One day you’re pushing them up. The next day you flatten them completely in a sausage-casing sports bra. And the next day you’re worried that too much nipple shows through your shirt.

Not forgetting the endless quest to find a bra or bathing suit top that comes even close to matching the unique three-dimensional situation you have hanging off your rib cage.

My God, the hours we’ve all wasted in this fruitless pursuit.

But, if you’re lucky, you see them reflected in your partner’s eyes and they are … enough.

Then, one day you finally learn their true purpose when you see your baby drink from them.

They are two-thirds of your womanhood. They are sustainers of life. They are our superpower.

What am I without them?

The door opens.

A dreamlike conversation flows around me.

If I had a million dollars (if I had a million dollars)

Well I’d buy you a green dress (but not a real green dress, that’s cruel)

Likely nothing to worry about. Round calcifications are good.

Round good. Jagged, irregular bad.

If I had a million dollars (if I had a million dollars), well, I’d buy you some art (a Picasso or a Garfunkel)

We also found a few cysts. But it is normal to have cysts. Cysts normal.

If I had a million dollars (if I had a million dollars), well, I’d buy you a monkey (haven’t you always wanted a monkey?!)

But there was one we’d like to keep a closer eye on. Cysts bad.

If I had a million dollars

So we’re going to need you to come back in six months and we’ll do this again.

I’d buy your love

Anne Farrer lives in North Vancouver.

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