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My Breast

One woman’s cancer story.

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I have a scar on my left breast, four inches long, that runs from the right side of my breast to just above the nipple. Nick, whom I no longer see, once said that if anyone asked, I should say I was attacked by a jealous woman. The true story, which I prefer, is that a surgeon made the cut, following a line I had drawn for him the night before. He had asked me where I wanted the scar, and I had put on a black strapless bra and my favorite party dress and drawn a line in ink just below the top of the bra, a good four inches below the tumor. The surgeon took it out using a local, and when he was done, I asked to see it. It was the size of a robin’s egg, with the gray brainlike matter that gives it its name: medullary cancer. It rested in the middle of a larger ball of pink-and-white breast tissue, sliced down the center like a hard-boiled egg, an onionlike layering of whitish-gray tissue about it, and I looked at it hard, trying to figure it out. We did not know it was cancer until twenty minutes later, when they had almost finished stitching me up and the pathology report came back, and then I was especially glad I had looked. Mano a mano, eyeball to eyeball. This is a modern story. Me and my cancer. I won.

Whom do I introduce first, me or my breasts? Formerly, I thought of my body as a unit, indivisible, with my breasts in some small way contributing to my notion of who I am. Now that they have shown the ability to destroy me, I regard them with new respect, thinking perhaps they deserve not only separate but higher billing. As this is a breast-cancer story, maybe they should have it.

They are, anyway, good-size breasts, and though they are fibrocystic, which means the milk-producing tissues thicken and form fluid-filled sacs, and though I have what some people claim may be other predisposing factors for cancer—menstruation at an early age, no children—I did not worry about the disease. There is no history of breast cancer in my family; I do not smoke; I go to the gym. My father, the year before my diagnosis, died of prostate cancer, but I viewed this as a separate thing. Also, because I knew it would be difficult for me to spot a malignant lump given the cystic condition of my breasts, my gynecologist always examined them, and I had regular mammograms. I had my first when I was 30. For the past five years, I had gone to the Guttman Breast Diagnostic Institute, which had been recommended to me by my gynecologist as being as good as a private service and a whole lot cheaper. In 1986, it was $45, as opposed to $125, and if a woman couldn’t afford to pay, it was free. The wait was long, but there was a cozy female camaraderie, sitting in your paper hospital shirt next to ladies of all ages and seeing how many shapes we come in. One morning, when the room was exceptionally crowded, I counted and figured out there were 140 breasts ahead of me: I had a mammogram once a year, and every year the letter I got afterward began the same:

“Dear Ms. Wadler,

“We are pleased to inform you that the results of your examination were satisfactory and within normal limits. . . .”

Who I am is a journalist, 44, Jewish, never married, which, as everybody in New York knows, thanks to our 1 million collective hours of analysis, is a whole other category than single. I was raised in the Catskills, in a boarding house, in a large, noisy, opinionated family headed by my father’s mother, who, rather than leaving the Russian shtetl of Molov Guburney, brought it to America with her. It enclosed her like a capsule, the Bubble in the Bubble; she never learned to read English and spoke to me in Yiddish, a language I did not entirely understand. I came to New York, to the Village, at seventeen and have lived here since, working for newspapers and magazines. My closest friend is Herb, a comedy writer. We hang out so much that when I am seeing somebody, we joke about how to explain about Herb. Herb’s idea is that I throw a sheet over him when he is lying on the couch reading the newspaper, and after each date I pull back the sheet a little bit, and by the time it gets serious, the guy’s got the picture.


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