Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Feeling the beast

Shortly before I left Chicago last month to return to New Zealand, one of my dear friends was diagnosed with breast cancer. This news has become a semi-annual event. Despite all of the Walks for the Cure and hopeful pink ribbons and fundraisers and medical advancements, breast cancer seems to be part of the fabric of life. The angst of my generation.

I have been grateful and blessed not to have had the call back from my gynie that something is amiss after the annual wrestling match with the mammogram machine. But so many friends have had “that” call. That second visit. The biopsy. The radiation. The chemo. The hair loss. The nausea. The fear. The whispered updates in the powder room at someone else's party.

After each surrogate scare, I become more dutiful in terms of my own breast exams. I pocket the card from Dr. Kamel instructing me on the proper rotation of my rigid fingers over my nipples and lymph nodes. I soap up in the shower and awkwardly press and fumble about, not exactly sure what I'm looking for and hopeful that if there is a mass, I'll be able to feel it. What does IT feel like?

This is my experience with breast cancer as of yesterday - June 9 - at 5:00 p.m. I am an informed bystander. A not too reliable examiner.

Here's what happened next.

I am leading a workshop for a client here in Gisborne. The workshop is being held in the Catholic Church - not because the topic is at all just so happens the church meeting room is the best space she could find to hold this session. As we are wrapping up, I notice a woman sort of beckoning and gesturing through the small window in the back door. My client notices as well and some sort of sign language is exchanged, and I go back to the final round of thank you's and assorted closing remarks.

My client, Dee [not her real name] stands up and makes the following announcement:

"Before everyone leaves, I want to make you aware that Sue Smith [not her real name either] is here in the church. Sue was just diagnosed with breast cancer and she is willing to let you feel the lump in her breast so you know what one feels like."

I am not quite sure I understand what Dee has just said. "Are you saying Sue is asking if we want to feel her breast?" I stammer, just in case I'm completely off base.

"Yes, she wants women to know what cancer feels like so they have a better chance of finding it themselves."

Unreal. Surreal. I am already late to pick up Brent and in super rush mode, but I am compelled to do this.

Dee and I walk into the church hallway. It is dark and cold. We approach a small chapel where Sue is praying. Dee kneels and crosses herself before entering the chapel. I hover modestly, still wondering if it is too late to back out of this incredibly private moment facing down the invasion in this woman's body.

We then go into the "loo" and Sue starts undressing. Her blue sweatshirt is tossed onto a small garbage bin on the floor - there is no other furniture except the toilet and a wet sink. She is explaining that she found the lump during her shower and is a nurse and thought maybe other women might appreciate a close-up of this cancer monster. She peels off her shirt and her bra. Her two naked breasts are there - in front of me. I've never seen another woman's breasts this close. Not even my own mother.

Sue has very large breasts with huge tan nipples. I can see her veins, like foot shoulders creeping just under her pale skin. I don't want to stare, but she is directing me to "look right at my breasts." She raises her arms and at that point, I notice a slight distortion in her right breast. It is sort of lopsided. Uneven.

She places my hand under her breast and together we are prodding and pressing. My other hand searches on top. I feel a bit voyeuristic, but mostly curious and careful. I feel a plum. No -- more like firm spongy ball. It moves, but it is definitely in there. Playing hide and seek under our intertwined fingers.

That's the beast, she says. No irony or bitterness. Just the statement. Almost like she's pointing to a small cat or house pet.

We are huddled in the bathroom, roaming over her most feminine limb. I want to be tender and respectful. I am in awe of this woman. She is standing before me. A complete stranger. She continues an almost methodical tour of her breast and then says, "I'm probably going to lose my boob. Maybe both of them." Offhandedly. Matter of fact.

I am moved beyond belief. I am in a Catholic Church. So very far from my own faith, but so obviously in the space of the divine. I am holding cancer in my hand. But I can also feel Sue's heart. Her humanity is so large, I am speechless.

The door opens. Another woman steps in...I need to use the loo she says. I'm not even sure she knows what she's interrupted. But it must look a little bit odd - a topless woman in the church toilet.

Sue gets dressed and heads into the meeting room. She tells me they will schedule her surgery on Thursday. I tell her I will pray for her. I cry all the way home. I have just met generosity. I have shaken the hand of magnificence. I touched the beast.....who lives in an angel.

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