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The Breast Husband Ever

Navigating a breast cancer scare in a marriage.

"What if it’s cancer?”

"What if it isn’t?”

“But what if I no longer have breasts for you to play with?”

“But what if you do?”

“Ok, but what if I lose my hair?”

“Ok, but what if you don’t?”

“But what if I die soon and we don’t get to travel like we had planned and it’s a pandemic and someone else will get to do all these cool things with you and have a life with you? Then what?”

“But what if that someone is you?”

National Cancer Institute/ Unsplash
Source: National Cancer Institute/ Unsplash

For fifteen days this past March, that was the back and forth exchange I insisted on having on repeat with my husband, Mike. Well, okay, not my actual we-had-a-wedding-and-have-a-marriage-certificate-to-prove-it husband, but a man I’ve been with almost nine years. I wish we could have nine million more together. We share our two homes two hours apart and have rings and trust accounts and named each other as beneficiaries. Most of all, he is my best friend and we get to have a lifelong slumber party where instead of braiding each other’s hair, we spend the night entangled in each other’s bodies. That kind of husband.

It was late afternoon the Sunday before the day I was to have the needle biopsy in my right breast to determine what exactly the radiologist was finding so suspicious on an earlier routine mammogram and ultrasound. Laying naked on top of Mike before he was to head back home, I looked down and kissed his face and smooth bald head as I always do, but this time I found myself studying his thick fingers cupping my breasts, and my mind tumbled back into the treacherous scenarios of wondering what he would get to hold if the results were grim.

It was the first day since that dreadful mammogram that he had really held my breasts. As we were in waiting mode for the results, he was much less playfully grabby with them than usual. I think he smartly intuited that if he did that, I would have fixated even more on his response if the news was awful.

For two weeks, I pressed him: “But you’re a total boob man.” And for two weeks he countered, relatively convincingly, “So, I’ll find something else, I’ll play with your butt.”

It was lying there in bed with his left hand cradling my right breast that caught my attention, seeing his ring finger with our matching bands. He picked them out for us. They have a wave resembling the beaches we love and two types of metal simultaneously symbolizing our rooted blendedness and ability to be alone. It was as though his fingers were firmly yet gently hugging my breasts, not too tight, not too loose. It’s as if his hands were saying what I had been having trouble hearing and that he had been patiently reiterating for 12 anxious days since that first mammogram: “Don’t worry; I’m not going anywhere.”

The spiritual teacher Ram Dass reminds us, “Be here now.” Mike’s hereness is his gift to our relationship. My hereness is less steady, more fleeting, with a sense of “I’m trying to be here now and yet my head is in so many other places.”

I started doing a body part countdown and realized that in the span of our relationship I had already lost a uterus, two ovaries, fallopian tubes, and a cervix and was concerned about anything else that might need to be removed. Those aren’t parts anyone would know about unless I told them but the thought of more outward-facing parts potentially needing modification reinforced my sense of physical fragmentation brought on by an aging body.

While I feel more whole on the inside, more connected and integrated than at any other point in my life, I know that hasn’t always been the case. See, I grew up knowing how to conceal brokenness, the kind borne from emotional abuse. A mind, a way of living, both made and remade.

I intuited this body made would also be continually remade. Like most girls and women I know, I became expert at feeling less than in my body while simultaneously wanting less of a body. Longing for thinner thighs, narrower shoulders, skinnier ankles, and smaller knees. Body parts that would never be mine.

Mike, though, has never ripped my body to shreds. If he could love me whole, then surely, I can try.

He’s been only kind to this body. Turning me on, even in the immediately vulnerable weeks after a hysterectomy, playing with and stretching my left fingers to more quickly recover from hand surgery, cooking eggs I believe he scrambles with love, taking over whatever needs to be done so I can have time to exercise or write, and encouraging me to go to sleep earlier.

I’m keenly aware that there are too many men who don’t hold women’s bodies with care. When I worked as a counselor in an abuser intervention program, I heard stories from men who had thrown their wives down the stairs, or spit on them, or in one case that remains indelible in my mind, a man reported that he took a kitchen trash can filled with chicken bones and other remains from dinner and dumped it on his wife’s head. There were the news stories of women assaulted, dismembered, and discarded in dumpsters. There’s my friend’s ex-husband who had an affair when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Attempting to reassure myself, I reasoned that cancer doesn’t run rampant in my family. Immediately, I countered that, realizing it’s stupid to assume as my blood-related family was all dead and I didn’t have completely reliable information. I considered my mounting risk factors: early onset of menstruation at age 11, on a hormone patch, a maternal aunt with breast cancer, and being an Ashkenazi Jew. With Mike being Catholic, I fantasized about converting, momentarily forgetting that would not solve the genetic problem. These are all circumstances outside my control.

The only thing I did choose that does increase breast cancer risk is not having children. But, why should I have to pay a price for not wanting to reproduce? I’ve performed so much mothering in my life and none of that mattered in these calculations of risk.

I never smoked, rarely drank, and always took reasonably good care of myself. Shouldn’t all that count? Yet, everyone seems to be cursed with this thing. It’s like the big C has become the common cold.

I was glad my mother hadn’t lived to feel the weight of worry of these weeks. She couldn’t handle a sick daughter. She had too many friends, as do I, with sick children and dead children. Waiting would have made her twitchier than it had already made me.

In what I now realize was a preemptive defense, I started to think, “What use are breasts anyway?” These breasts of mine have never been functional. I never nursed babies with them. My breasts are ornamental. I admit they used to be better to look at. A guy friend in college used to remark about how perky they were. Yet I had grown up embarrassed by them having been the first in my sixth-grade class to develop.

Now, my breasts are more like Christmas ornaments that hang off an evergreen limb. You can see the ornament pulling the limb down and pretty soon the ornament will just fall to the floor, roll away and shatter.

The purpose of my breasts has been purely for subjective and objective pleasure. In a sociology of the body course that I teach at the university, I try to help my students see that we live in our bodies and experience them in relation to other’s bodies. These breasts are mine for sure; yet, they are also mine and Mike’s together.

I am aware of how this goes against my feminist sensibility that my body is mine and only mine. Yet this breast cancer scare has me understanding more intimately the way we share our bodies.

During the long wait for the results, I announced to Mike, “I’m just going to have my breasts removed; there’s no way I’m going through this every year.” Nonplussed, he replied, “Sure, that makes sense.” “Really?” I would ask. “Sure, whatever you think you need to do,” he insisted. He must have known my proclamation was more about wanting to own and control my own body and make my own choices even if it would mean electing prophylactic mastectomy. So, he just let me spin out of my orbit, time-traveling with worry, until I got so tired I would either fall asleep or finally stop talking about it. It was like letting a kid cry it out.

So, I shouldn’t have been floored when Mike asked me what we need to do next, conveying to me we were in this together, whatever it was. I tried to let his sense of hereness and we-ness sink in.

Mike said, until it became a mantra, and one I could install in myself: “Whatever it is, we’ll take care of it.” I wound up walking into my appointment with the surgeon repeating that phrase to myself.

We. Will. Take. Care.

Note: a version of this article was published by The Good Men Project on September 21, 2021.

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