05/07/2013 07:50 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

My Left Breast


We sit in a circle. The husbands, too. Both facilitators are breast cancer survivors. Everyone, except the husbands, takes turns talking. The stories are heartbreaking and boring. And routine, astonishing, terrifying and exhausting. But after the husbands are taken into another room (to talk about, ahem, their breastless feelings), the stories get more interesting. There is the boyfriend who ran away after the diagnosis, the husband whose insensitivity borders on sadism ("All he said after my diagnosis was, Can we still go skiing next week?") A mother cries because she doesn't want to wear a wig to her daughter's wedding. The woman who has already outlived by a year her prognosis of imminent death talks and talks as if her unbroken chain of outpouring words are keeping her alive. Fear, like a foul smell, permeates the air. Outside, there are the familiar sounds of cars heading to the office, supermarket, dry cleaners or daycare, as if we were not sitting here in a circle of surprised despair. The air is crisp out there, and you remember other autumns when you were growing up in Cleveland. The air was fragrant then, the trees brilliant with color, and you would not have been able to imagine sitting in Texas with a group of ladies soon to be maimed -- or to die.

I sit mute, listening to each sad story, as if it weren't my story, too, as if I had wandered into the wrong movie at the multiplex. Then it is my turn to speak and all eyes turn to me, waiting. I sit there. I have nothing to say to these strangers. I have no story to tell. All I can think to say is I'm angry.

When the facilitator says I should validate my anger, I want to hit her. I hate the psychobabble, the hard plastic chairs, the snacks, the outpourings, the shared misery. I hate the word "share." I feel patronized. But also strangely relieved. I didn't know until that moment how angry I was. I suddenly remember that in last night's dream, I was standing alone somewhere, surrounded by the fury of an enraged gale. And that I woke damp with perspiration and a pounding heart.

What am I angry at? My breast? How can you be mad at your own breast? At God? Please. God doesn't do breasts. At my kind, supportive, sensitive, frightened husband? Yes, you bet, for his health and breastless body.

I -- we -- are given platitudes. About mental imaging. Meditation. Optimism. Sharing feelings. About attitude. As if cancer gives a damn about attitude. Or about validating your anger, for that matter. Although Norman Mailer once wrote that if he hadn't stabbed his wife he would have got cancer, it is obviously too late for me to stab anyone. I want to go home.

At the end of the session, everyone hugs. I smell their face powder, feel their arms around me. One lady just wants to shake hands. Her skin is as soft as a baby's. I leave the support group feeling as if I have a "C" tattooed on my forehead.

But I don't want to be defined by cancer. What I really am is a mother and stepmother. What I really am is a grandparent, a wife, a writer, a friend. What I really am is a reader of books, a watcher of movies. A listener, a walker, a weight lifter! I never go back to the support group. I don't belong there. It is a case of mistaken identity.

But I am diagnosed. I don't even have to say "with cancer," because no one ever says I've been diagnosed with the flu, or I've been diagnosed with arthritis or I've been diagnosed with shingles. "Diagnosed" is the code word for cancer. It contains all the news.

The word slides off your brain like rain because you know your doctor is mistaken. Cancer is an abstraction, a ridiculous interruption of your life. You know it is out there with the criminals and rapists and hurricanes; of course you know that. It is what happens to your grandmother, or your friend's mother-in-law, or your neighbor. But surely not to you. Laboratories make mistakes like that all the time. Ask the experts, read the statistics: If you're slender, if you don't smoke, if you eat your vegetables and exercise and get mammograms and have no cancer in your family and take an aspirin every day, a cancer tumor doesn't just grow in your right breast like a weed. Obviously, my mammogram has been substituted for someone else's, some poor, sick woman. (You'll take her your tuna and mushroom casserole; you'll drive on her car pool days; you'll do her grocery shopping; only please, please, let this thing be hers.)

But I was sent for a sonogram. The lady doctor pushed a gadget over and over the suspicious breast like some crazy old scavenger with his metal detector mining for treasure at the beach. Her tone announcing cancer is as brisk and matter-of-fact as the plumber's who came to fix your shower last week. But you still don't get it. Your brain has shut down. The word coming out of this doctor's mouth could have been "lamp" or "tree" or "allergy." Baring your breast and having cancer is too embarrassing. Your mind has skittered away; it has looked elsewhere.

As I make my way to the dressing room, I think insanely that my breast and I would have been perfectly fine if it weren't for that stupid f*cking sonogram.

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