So today I placed my boobs into a giant, hospital-grade George Foreman grill and held my breath as the nurse took the X-ray.
Let me tell you what, there is nothing quite like hoisting the flesh of your nipple onto a cold metal surface while a stranger watches. I mean, they’re definitely judging you. If not the size of your areolas, your dexterity. They’re there tapping their foot while you’re fuddling along with some necklace that never effing clasps when you want it to, but the minute you need to TAKE IT OFF, it’s like the jaws of life itself.
Why does life work like this? Am I the only person who has these issues?
I wish that were the worst part of the story. (Which would be a pretty boring story: GIRL GOES TO GET MAMMOGRAM. RIVETING.) But it was all down hill from there. I really should have known the moment I went to use the ladies’ room and accidentally dunked the blue paper gown into my own pee. Who does that? How does that even happen? It’s like the Griswold’s go to the hospital. I didn’t accidentally rip an oxygen tube out of a senior citizen’s nose, but what happened next may as well have been just as disastrous. Though in my defense, this was not my fault. Or maybe it was my fault. I still have no idea.
I should note that the reason why I went to the hospital in the first place is because for the past four weeks I’ve basically been convinced I had breast cancer and was going to die.
Because, I mean, why do my boobs suddenly feel like there’s a strand of butt beads embedded inside? (RIGHT? The face you’re making right now as you read that sentence is the same one I made when I felt it.)
So before flying all the way back to the United States to start chemo—because clearly I was that level concerned—I thought I should probably just go to the private hospital here where I am in Costa Rica and have a mammogram done, you know, to be sure I wasn’t imagining things.
And mind you, I feel so responsible making this phone call, right? Like, hello, I’m an adult and I’m doing the mature thing here by driving 3 hours to San Jose to the capital to have this checked on. It’s the same feeling when you go to the dentist for a cleaning without there even being anything wrong. LOOK AT MY ADULT SKILLS.
So when I call, chica on the phone tells me that not only can I come right away—there’s actually a November special on boobs! Get a mammogram and an ultra sound for just 100 bucks. And I’m all, JACKPOT. If I really do have cancer at least I’ll find out for cheap.
So off I go to the hospital, taking care to select the perfect outfit for finding out one has cancer. Which was a tall order, you know? Whatever you put on will forever be THE OUTFIT. You’ll never be able to wear it again, or anything similar, because…mental associations and all. I also make sure I’ve got a decent pair of undies on, because there is nothing worse than stripping down only to reveal the incredibly unsexy nude tattered thing you really meant to throw out but decided to save for period days. (And then end up wearing even when it’s not your period because WHATEVER YOU HAVE OTHER THINGS TO WORRY ABOUT.)
I get there. The nurse is incredibly nice. (Which is good, I’ve decided, because I’d prefer to find out from a friendly face.) She takes me into a room and asks me all of the standard questions: Name, age, and whether or not this was my first mammogram. Which it actually was. Which, based on her look of “poor stupid thing,” I felt incredibly irresponsible about. I mean, what kind of a Neanderthal am I?
After we place each boob, one by one, into the George Foreman (yes, she helps), she says she’ll be right back after she interprets the results. So, cool, there I am I’m hanging out in my blue pee-dipped paper gown, and the minutes are passing by, and passing by, and finally I begrudgingly pick up my phone (I had been trying very hard to be “in the present”—another wildly mature move on my part, thankyouverymuch) and decide to scroll through Instagram. Because right this very second, I desperately, urgently, want to look at pretty things. Because I realize this would be the last thing I saw before I got THE NEWS and my life would be changed forever. So naturally I go straight to the #LONDON hashtag, of course, because I love everything London, and if I’m about to die, then I should probably do it while gazing upon a woman’s stylish knee high boots.
…And that’s when she popped her head back in. And then, with a serious I’m about to tell you that you have cancer tone, she said:
“Did you you, um, come here on a doctor’s referral—orrrrrr—just because you felt…the lumps?”
And that’s when I knew it was going to be bad. So bad that they wanted to call my primary care physician right away. So bad that she’s calling them, “the lumps.”
It’s all over, I write, texting my girlfriends, bracing everyone for the worst, making jokes about my pee-dipped paper gown. I had always made jokes during times like these.
I sit there for another fifteen minutes, in the cold, sterile room, trying to pre-plan my facial expression when I get the news. Will I be composed, or tragic? Poised or puddle? I’ve never seen myself in this kind of situation before—I don’t know what to expect from myself.
Then, the door flings open and a different nurse comes in to take me to another room for the ultra sound. There is no mention of my pending death. I don’t ask. I’m too scared.
There, I am left there to wait again, except this time the wait was short. When the doctor enters, I am surprised as he closes the door behind him. Oh my god, I think. It’s that bad. He’s protecting my privacy. He wants to deliver the news behind closed doors.
The doctor reminds me a little bit of Dr. House, except less handsome, and a tad bit older. He offers a standard greeting, but then just looks at me in the eyes. He is silent. There is a pause. It’s uncomfortable.
Funny enough, you know what was going through my mind? I wonder how this guy is going to deliver the news. I watch him, intently, thinking only of his performance; feeling bad he has to be tasked with such a terrible job. I want to interrupt him, to tell him not to bother looking for the right words. That I look for the right words for a living as a writer, and whatever cliché thing comes out of his mouth will make it even worse. I had already spent all of that time perfecting the moment, from the outfit to the Instagram feed, and I wasn’t about to let him ruin it with some obvious platitude.
Then, he finally speaks—but I could have never predicted what he was going to say next.
“You ordered this mammogram on your own, without the referral of a doctor?” he booms.
I told him I had. That I had come of my own volition. I make a brave face.
“Well that’s just great,” he says sarcastically. “And you realize whose signature is on that x-ray? Not yours, señorita. MINE.”
This is the part where I start to get confused. Because, mind you, this conversation is happening in Spanish. And my doctor seems to be upset about something. Is he upset with me? Why does he seem to be upset?
“Next thing I know you’ll be coming down here with your fancy American lawyers,” he spits, venomously.
That’s when I realized that it was definitely bad. Or something had gone wrong. What had gone wrong? Why were we talking about lawyers? Why is he upset? WHAT ABOUT MY CANCER?
“Do you understand what I’m saying to you?” he asks, gruffly, still in Spanish. He repeats himself again, flustered, angry, this time adding new information:
“You know what you’ve just done by taking it upon yourself to order your own mammogram? You’ve just increased your risk of breast cancer. You get ULTRA-SOUNDS at this age. NOT MAMMOGRAMS. You’re not forty yet! So now if you do get breast cancer, how do I know you’re not going to come down here with your fancy American lawyers? It’s my signature on that x-ray that you ordered.”
Now, mind you, I’m sitting there on this table with my tits out, cold, confused, trying to understand, in Spanish, why this doctor was angry with me about any of this. First of all, weren’t mammograms something that women got EVERY year?! Wasn’t this what I was suppose to be doing? So what if I wasn’t forty—that was clearly an arbitrary number. WHAT ABOUT THE KNOTS IN MY BOOBS?! And furthermore, if this was a problem, why hadn’t anyone stopped me? The nurse had clearly taken my age down, and knew it was my first mammogram. No one asked me for a doctor’s referral. All I did was call and make an appointment. And they let me make the appointment. And I paid for the appointment. And I went to the appointment. Because mammograms were standard procedure. Weren’t they?!
What begins to bother me more than simply being reprimanded, however, was the feeling that I was being accused—as if the doctor was suspicious of my motives. He was not worried about my health. He was worried about me suing him five years down the road for a mistake that, as far as I could tell, was an error his office had made. And as I sit there, listening to him repeat himself again and again as if he is demanding an explanation, I consider my options. I could get up and walk out, right this very second, boobs out, and demand another doctor. I could put my clothes on and leave entirely. I could give this doctor a piece of my mind. I could just stay quiet.
The old Ashley would have stayed quiet—the one who respected any type of authority and nodded politely and assumed the passive role. It was, in my ways, my first reflex. It was as if I was transformed back into a little girl, sitting there being yelled at. I would have never talked back. I wouldn’t have ever said anything at all.
But I’ve learned all too well that the world is full of bullies—and sometimes, they’re dressed as authorities. I’ve learned all too well about that authorities can abuse their position of power—and revel in it. I’ve learned all too well that the authorities you place your trust, and your money, and your faith in—who you expect to be well-meaning, and decent, and good—are not always. I’ve learned the hard way. And as I sat there, naked in front of this doctor, with the door closed, I recognize him as one more example.
“Y que voy a saber YO?” I suddenly boomed back, sitting up straight and boring my eyes right back into his. And tell me, how was I suppose to know? “QUE VOY A SABER YO?”
He pauses for a moment, for the first time realizing that I wasn’t just another passing tourist; that my Spanish was too good; that I wasn’t about to sit there and accept his abusive tone.
“Well then,” he says, “Then that’s something I need to know. If no one asked you if you were here by referral of a doctor, then that’s what I need to know. Fortunately your mammogram didn’t show any abnormalities, but that doesn’t change the fact….”
And that’s when I lost it. I bolted upright, my breasts swinging outside of the paper gown.
“First of all,” I said, “if my mammogram was normal, then maybe you should have led with the information, doctor. You don’t do that to a patient who’s sitting here terrified they’ve got breast cancer.”
I then continue to scold him right back, in my most fluent Spanish. Because beyond the fact that I was entirely offended, if his office had made a mistake, and I wasn’t suppose to have a mammogram, and it did increase my risk of breast cancer—so much so that this doctor was actually worried about it the way he was—well, then the person who should be angry was me.
And then, right before I was about to get up and walk out, the doctor acquiesced, apologizing, asking to continue the ultra sound and do what I had come for. And while every cell in me did not want to be touched by this man, I found myself lying back down on my side, because I was worried that if I walked out now, I might not come back. And I wasn’t going to let him be the reason why I never found out.
When the ultra sound showed zero abnormalities, I was relieved. When I lay there with a tear rolling out of the corner of my eye, I was calm. And when the doctor asked me to touch my own breast with my own hand, as he guided me around it, showing me that what I felt was perfectly normal, I obeyed but did not smile. And when I left the hospital that day, x-rays in hand, I wasn’t just proud that I had gone to face what might have been the worst—
I was proud I had the courage to face a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Because there have been times in the past when I have not. There have been times in the past when I have been silent. And there have been times in the past when I have let them rob me of my voice.
And that, to me, is the most tragic thing that could happen to a human.
Not the loss of a power play, but the loss of your power.