Breast cancer is always a big deal

When I was about 13 years old, a doctor, while filling out my chart, asked me if I knew of any history of breast cancer in my family.

“No, I don’t think so,” I told her. “But there’s not much history of breasts in my family, period, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Unfortunately, this particular physician seemed to share the same sense of humor as most TSA agents I’ve encountered, and didn’t appreciate my trying to make light of the situation.

“That has absolutely nothing to do with it, young lady,” she said. “Breast cancer can affect anyone, no matter what size.”

Admittedly, I may have added the “young lady” part myself, in my recollection of events. But she definitely scolded me, and none too delicately, either.

And rightfully so, as I would come to find out years later, when my own mother — bearer of some of that small-chested DNA — would face down the diagnosis herself.

What followed was a hell all cancer survivors understand. Surgery. Crushing rounds of chemo. Radiation.

Hair loss, rotting fingernails, the taste of rusted penny in her mouth 24/7. Endless nausea. Bone-deep fatigue.

Then the regular check-ups, and that gnawing, constant fear the disease would return.

Which it did, a couple years after that — and so she underwent all the same awful treatments that went with it.

Fast forward to only a few weeks ago, when she would hear those dreaded words a third time: You have cancer.

And when she would decide finally that enough was enough, and make an appointment to have her left breast removed altogether.

It’s a crazy thing, isn’t it? As women, our breasts are a big deal. Even before we “get” them, so to speak, they’re a huge part of our lives. Just ask any girl who tried those “We must increase our bust” exercises from “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.”

As we grow up, their place in our lives grows and changes with us. Are they too big? Too small? Either way, we’re self-conscious about them. We curse them, cajole them, attempt to control them through a million combinations of Lycra, lace and underwire.

Many of us are defined by them — or are defined by them by others. As though how we look in sweaters somehow translates to how valuable we are or feminine we feel in our skin.

And let’s not forget their ultimate purpose — to feed and nourish our children.

In the life of a woman, her breasts loom large. Even when the breasts themselves aren’t.

So when, on top of all that, we have to face the sobering fact that they could wind up killing us, well, it’s a pretty tough pill to swallow.

According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc., one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer. Of those, about 16 percent will die.

Many of the women diagnosed will be forced to make the same choice my mom did.

“It’s funny,” she said on the eve of her surgery, a week after having made the decision. “I’m just now really considering what I’m losing.”

They may not have been much, she said, but those A-cups were hers, and she’d had them a long time.

So I told her what that doctor all those years ago told me. That size had nothing to do with it. She was certainly allowed to mourn. That anyone, regardless of how well-endowed, could and would be affected.

“But don’t worry,” I added. “I won’t tell everyone that you stuff your bra.”

Luckily, unlike that doc whose words I invoked, my mother can actually take a joke, and manage to laugh at herself through the pain.

“I’ve really come full circle,” she said.

Stay strong, Ma — and all you other brave survivors out there.

Katie McDowell is a lifestyles writer/copy editor for The Dominion Post. Email her at