A few months before your 31st birthday you’ll be lying in bed holding Animal Farm with one hand and idly examining your boobs with the other. With a start, you’ll notice something that resembles a robin’s egg rolling around under the skin of your left nipple. You’ll play with it for the rest of the day, and when your boyfriend comes over you’ll ask him to touch it. He’ll say, “Yeah, hm.” He’ll dump you the day after you find out you need surgery to remove it.
You’ll make an appointment with your gynecologist, and she’ll have the same “Yeah, hm” reaction your dude did, only she’ll also hand you a slip of paper ordering you to go to the hospital for a mammogram. You’ve never had a mammogram, so you’ll be kind of freaked out but mostly curious whether it’s as bad as it sounds/looks like it is.
A month later when they finally get you in for an appointment, you’ll find out that yep! Actually worse than you imagined. You’re standing in jeans and a pointless hospital gown that hangs open in the front. Your breast will be completely smashed flat, impossibly flat, between two thick plastic plates. You’ll wonder if the thing in your boob is going to burst from the pressure? What’s even in it? Can it burst? Can your whole boob burst? It feels like it might. This will go on forever, just smashing your boob this way, smashing your boob that way. “Can you crouch down a little for this one? Like I just need you to squat a little and lean to your left. Hold your arm out of the way. Just stay in that pose for a minute while I step out to take the picture.” Your knee pain will distract you from your boob pain after a minute.
A few days later they’ll call to tell you the test was inconclusive, because you have fibrous breast tissue and from now on you’ll need ultrasounds, not mammograms. This will be the best news. The next thing they’ll say is that they need to do a biopsy. “Don’t worry, it’s a quick appointment. We just use a needle to take a sample of the lump in order to figure out what it is.” You’ll repeat this to your therapist, and she’ll order you to bring a friend because she has secret knowledge of what is about to happen to you.
At the appointment you’ll be so grateful your friend is there to hold your hand while a technician uses the ultrasound wand thing to aggressively smash the lump down and hold it in place while she jams what appears to be a thin liposuction needle in and out if the lump, which is now, months after discovering it, the size of a ping pong ball. This goes on for about three minutes. You’ll watch the needle going in and out, in and out, on the black-and-white ultrasound screen. You’ll feel the tugging, get nauseous, and silently cry. The tech will say, “Well, it’s not a cyst, or liquid would’ve come out.” She’’ll tell you to come back in a week for the results.
Again, the test will be inconclusive! It is a tumor, not necessarily not cancer. They’ll tell you they want to remove it so they can examine the whole thing. You’ll get a sheet of paper to take to another part of the hospital to make your surgery appointment. This part of the hospital will have the word “Oncology” written on every door and wall and window, and will feature a glass display case containing two mannequin heads modeling beautiful wigs, a few bras that look like Ace bandages, and a variety of prosthetic tits. You’ll call your mom and she’ll promise to come stay with you until you’re better.
You cannot eat or drink anything starting the night before the operation; not even water. You love water so much! Like you're pretty much constantly drinking water ever since you quit smoking, unless you’re drinking wine, but even then you usually also have a water going. Your coworker who sits nearest the water cooler once told you that he's pretty sure you drink more water than everyone in the office combined. This “no water” rule will be psychological torture.
You’ll go to the hospital first thing in the morning, and they’ll put you in a gown and slippers and have you wait two hours in the waiting room. You'll sort of start to cry from anxiety and thirst. Your mom will laugh at you and call you something adorable. Finally they’ll call you into another office with glass walls and everyone there will ask you “What's your name? Where's the lump?” to be sure they don’t mix you up with another patient. You’ll meet your nurse, your anesthesiologist, and your surgeon, who'll want to know if you’d like it removed the easy way by cutting you open right over the lump, which will leave a good-sized scar on the side of your boob. You have side titties and you are proud of them, so you don’t love this option. They’ll tell you there’s another way: They can cut around your areola, which will leave a much less noticeable scar, but once they get in there they may find that they need to cut into the side anyway so you could end up with TWO scars if they go that route. Up to you! You decide to chance it. Then they’ll ask you to follow them.
You’ll kiss your mom bye and walk yourself down a long hallway into an operating room. You will not be expecting this to be such a serious-looking operating room. There’ll be a huge metal table, giant spotlights, and about eight people buzzing around in scrubs and gloves. You’ll lay on the table and the dude will put a needle in your arm. Your surgeon will ask you what music you want on, you’ll say rap, and he’ll say they only have Eminem, “Is that OK?” You’ll pass out. That afternoon your mom will tell you that while they were waiting for you to come to, the doctor briefed her on the surgery and said, “We really had to dig, but we got it. I think.”
You’ll spend the next two nights sleeping upright on a couch because every time you lay on your side or back, your boob — although completely bandaged — will flop a little, and a shooting, searing pain that feels like the whole thing will split apart jolts you back upright. You’ll take Vicodin for the pain, forgetting every time that it makes your stomach hurt and disrupts your sleep and generally makes everything but your boob feel awful. You’ll spend a week trying to avoid getting the bloody bandage wet in the shower. Once they take the bandage off and say that your scar is “looking good!” even though it's totally not looking good, it's looking like a bloody, twisty half circle, occasionally really pokey stitches will come out of the side of your nipple. The doctor will tell you this is normal. He’ll also tell you the lump was an adenoma and nothing to worry about, except you’ll probably get one again, so come back for checkups every six months or so.
At one of these regular checkups a year later they’ll do a pap smear. A week after that an operator from the phone service the hospital uses will call saying it came back abnormal and:
“You need to take down this number and call and tell them you need a coke.”
“A colp. COL-Peh. A colposcopy.”
You’ll decide to look it up online later rather than keep chatting like this. You find out a colp is a cervical biopsy. You make the appointment.
You’ll be in the stirrups like normal and your doctor will come in with some long stick-like things in plastic bags. She’ll ask you to scoot your butt down closer to her. No, closer. She’ll insert a speculum like normal in order to open you up and get a clear view of your cervix, only she’ll open it way wider; much wider than usual. This will hurt. The second thing she’ll say is “what are you doing?” You’ll answer “playing Angry Birds.” You’ll wish you’d said, “I’m being fucking NORMAL on my phone. What are YOU doing?” The nurse gives you a wink; your doctor rolls her eyes. Next she says, “OK, now this stuff I’m putting in will come out later today, so you’ll need a pantyliner.” She’ll take one of the long stick thingies from the nurse and then you won’t know what she’s doing for the next minute. Then the nurse will hand her another long stick thing that looks very similar to a large Slurpee spoon-straw, only it’s metal. Then the doctor will ask you to cough, which you’ll find weird. Later you assume it was to distract you? Anyway, you do as you’re told, and as you cough suddenly your whole stomach will tense up like you just got punched and you’ll feel like you’re going to throw up. You’ll think, I bet this is what contractions feel like. Your guts will start to ache back behind your belly button, and you’ll get pukier-feeling. Then it’ll occur to you that she used that spoon-straw thing to punch a hole out of the back of your cervix. You’re not even sure where or what your cervix technically is, but you can imagine the rough, bloody edges of the wound somewhere deep inside you, and the piece of your insides she’s placing in a cup to send to the lab. The thought of this will make you feel even barfier. She’ll stand up and say, “That’s it! Take it easy today; you might not feel well.”
She’s right! You’ll have a hard time walking the few blocks to work, will feel like barfing, and will have an achey stomach cramp all day. The stuff she warned you about coming out of you is dark brown and goopy. You’re mad she didn’t totally describe that part to you, but not as mad as you are three days later when you go to the bathroom and something that feels incredibly similar to that one time you had a miscarriage happens: a chunk of fleshy, blood-clotted tissue about the size of an actual wadded up tissue falls out of you and makes a splash in the toilet. You quickly get online and search for “bloody tissue after colposcopy” and find nothing, not even on WebMD. You only see discussion board posts by other women freaking out about having a miscarriage or something similar the week after getting a “colp” and “Please! Does anyone know what this is?” You think about maybe writing something really honest and gross for the internet about just a few of the ways ladies can expect to be hole-punched and torn apart, bit by bit by bit, as long as they stay alive long enough.
Jane Feltes produces the radio program "This American Life."