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Shannon Bradley-Colleary Headshot

What Happened When My Doctor Found a Lump

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It's the moment every woman dreads. You're lying flat on your back, your feet in stirrups and your Ob-Gyn, with cold fingers, kneads your breasts like they're dough for Challah bread.

She pretends she hasn't just looked at your cervix and isn't man-handling your mammaries by asking you awkward questions she doesn't really want the answers to.

"So, did you enjoy your holiday break? Where did you go? How's your dog, Petula? Oh, you have cats. Sorry. Oh. Shannon. I feel something here..."

She starts to pull my breasts like they're so much taffy at an amusement park concessions stand.

"You have a lump in your left breast," she says.

The next hour, while waiting for an ultra-sound to determine if I have cancer or not, my mind does this:

"It's probably not cancer, because there's no history of cancer in my family, but I do live close to a freeway and I did use tanning beds twice in college and I stood in front of the microwave when I was pregnant. I definitely have cancer. Look, Lainy and Shelley both had mastectomies and had their breasts reconstructed. Maybe they'll let me look at their nipples? Unless they don't have nipples. I don't really need my nipples. I just have to live long enough to get my kids out of school. And married. And to find a good wife for my husband, Henry. He'll need one because who will yell at him when he eats bread so he won't die of diabetes?"

Then there's a deep, sad lull. No more frenetic Ellen Degeneres stand-up routine in my head, just silence. Sobriety. The obvious, yet profound awareness that tomorrow isn't promised. That this small lump could be a turning point to a long, or short goodbye.

Suddenly, I see with a fresh clarity that all of the things running me on a daily basis don't really matter. It doesn't matter what I do for a living, where I live, what car I drive, whether I'm beautiful or invisible.

What matters is the sensation of my 9-year-old's sweet, satiny soft cheek beneath my lips, the feel of my 11-year-old's heavy, thick hair like rope in my hands as I braid it, the pleasure of my husband's intuitive hands kneading the cares of the day out of my shoulders.

This body. Oh how I loved you when I learned to run, jump and play.

How you awed and frightened me when hair began to grow in secret places and that startling red appeared on the clear white cotton of my underwear, precipitating womanhood and the terrifying privilege of bearing my girls.

How I disapproved when you wouldn't stay as thin and pliable as a reed, when you couldn't run, jump and play as fast and hard as you used to.

But the lump has changed that last bit. In this moment, waiting on a cold table in a pink medical robe opened in the front, I love my body with a ferocity one can only feel when something familiar and dependable could suddenly be ripped away.

The technician appears to perform my ultrasound. The last time I had an ultrasound was when I was pregnant with my youngest nine years ago. I'd seen the bottoms of both of her feet, like footprints on the wall of my womb and the black, aqueous emptiness which represented the amniotic fluid surrounding her.

Now, on my back, I see again a black, empty pocket which indicates fluid. There's nothing solid there. No tumor. The technician informs me I have a cyst, the doctor can drain it. And it's benign.

Tears prick my eyes as my body comes back to me. Still familiar and dependable. But I know in a concrete way that my body isn't mine to keep. It's the vessel carrying me through this one life. I will, in the end, have to relinquish it, which makes it all the more dear.

Soon I'll be annoyed when my jeans don't zip properly, or when my tendonitis flares up or when I have to dig around trying to find one of the ten pairs of reading glasses I have scattered around the house like so much hidden treasure. But right now all I feel such a deep, protective gratitude for the temple that is my body.

What I would say to this self-conscious 26-year old me: "Just run around naked all the time."

Note to the self-critical 26-year old me: You're more strong, smart and beautiful than you realize. Love your body now, then get on with the business of living. (The faux flower tattoo is for modesty's sake.)

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