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My Breast

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Roosevelt is gloomy. a group of homeless people has set up housekeeping on the 58th Street side, a sofa and two armchairs arranged in a traditional living-room style. Inside, the hospital needs painting. On the third-floor short-term-stay center, Herb parks himself in a reception area, while I go to a large room, which is partitioned with curtains, and change into baggy hospital clothes. Taking off my bra, I see that the line I have drawn is very low, nearly halfway down my breast. Wonderful, I think. Now the doctor is going to think I’m fast. A few minutes later, the surgical resident who will be assisting Luke drops by.

“Whoa! You can’t miss that!” he says when he examines me.

Luke comes to get me. He looks very preppy, sockless in clogs, and is very sweet, putting an arm around me as we walk to the operating room. I have a feeling this is politically incorrect behavior and I am not supposed to like it, but I do. The operating team includes a male and a female nurse, as well as the resident and Luke. Seeing the line on my breast, Luke laughs.

“You’ve sure made this idiotproof,” he says.

The doctor picks up the tumor. I am astonished at how big it is. The excised flesh has been sliced down the middle to expose the cross section of the tumor.

They paint my breast with a red-brown ointment that smells like iodine and cover the rest of my chest with sterile cloth. I can’t see the surgery, because Luke has asked me to turn my face to the right, but he has promised to tell me what I will feel and what he is doing. The anesthetic is Xylocaine. He injects it around my breast, waiting for the area to numb, then makes a cut. I have a feeling of warmth and wetness. Then there are strong sensations of tugging as he pulls back tissue and starts tunneling up to the lump, in the inner upper quadrant of my breast. Sometimes I feel a bit of pain, almost a burning sensation, and he gives me more Xylocaine. The tunneling goes on for twenty minutes, and while it is not as unpleasant as a dentist’s drilling, the more tissue that is pulled apart and clamped, the more uncomfortable I become. I am having second thoughts about being so concerned about looking good in a low-cut dress. Luke tells me they’ve reached the lump, but they’re going to go beyond it and take a margin of healthy tissue. I’m getting worried again. I don’t know whether the room is cool or I’m feeling a nervous chill, but Luke seems to be cutting a lot of flesh—I know the lump is high, but I feel he is burrowing up toward my collarbone. Then I feel some final tugging and the thing is out, and I see out of the corner of my eye a metal tray and they are cauterizing blood vessels. Luke moves away from the operating table and a few minutes later comes back. It’s a tumor all right, he says, sounding serious, but what sort he cannot say. He’s sending it to the lab now. I tell him that before he does, I’d like to see it.

“You sure?” he says.

“Yeah,” I say. He picks it up. I am astonished at how big it is. The excised flesh is the size of a tangerine and has been sliced down the middle to expose the cross-section of the tumor—that must be what Luke did when he left the table. The tumor, which is the size of a robin’s egg, is grayish white, with a layer of whitish-pink tissue. Around that is what appears to be normal breast tissue, pink and white, like very fatty, coarsely ground chopped meat. Luke points out the layering around the tumor, saying it appears to be encapsulated, and that is good. I don’t think any of this is good. I can’t believe this big gray glob came out of me. I have a bad feeling, a sense of unreality, as if I am in a dream or a place I had no intention to be.

“How soon will we know the results?” I say, as they start stitching me up.

“About twenty minutes,” Luke says.

And then, more to myself than to anyone else.

“How am I going to tell my mother?”

“Don’t get yourself worked up,” the male nurse says. “We don’t even know that it’s anything, yet,” and I try to hold on to that thought. But another part of me thinks he’s patronizing me; maybe they don’t want to deal with a flipped-out woman on the table if they’ve got to stitch up her chest. I feel lonely, unable to say what I’m thinking, and scared. I concentrate on being calm. In fifteen minutes, just as they’ve finished bandaging me, somebody comes into the room.


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