- The Blackening (Or That Time It Wasn’t Cancer)
My nipples started turning black a month or so before I hit forty.
Well, not exactly black. Not then. Not at first. Just—dark? Deepest brown? Existential crisis grey? Forty?
Is forty a color?
I ignored it.
That sounds crazier than it actually is—of course I didn’t ignore it.
The thing to know here is that when your nipple starts turning black, deepest brown, or even existential grey, the change does not happen all at once.
I probed, stubby fingers poking and twisting at each nipple. At the best of times, the cheap lightbulbs I settled on for the bathroom are depressing. They have a distinct yellow tinge that makes me look sad and sallow when I brush my teeth, a dramatic, poor art-film pauper trapped in a toothy suburbanite. The tip-tops of my breasts, perhaps blackening by the second, looked considerably worse under their environmentally friendly, yet affordably jaundiced glow.
No, of course I didn’t ignore it. I couldn’t. No one could. Not such a major change, certainly not such an alarming one.
Certainly, not right there. Not on your favorite bits.
What you do when your nipples start turning black is you try to ignore it. You want to ignore it. You don’t do anything about it.
You pretend as hard as you can to ignore it.
Our family motto is “fake it ‘till we make it.” So, I faked it. I told myself a lie. I told myself that the situation was ignorable. That my MUTATING NIPPLES were ignorable.
The thing to know here is that when your nipple starts turning black, deepest brown, or even existential grey, the change does not happen all at once. It is a creep. A transformation glacially slow. Just specks at first, specks circling the rim of the tip. Specks too small to be noticed by anyone else, even your husband.
Look down at your finger.
Imagine a speck of dirt on the tip of your nail. Or a fleck of brownie crumb after you have finished the last one in the pan. Imagine a hill on a planet. Imagine a moth on an oak. A small nothing.
And maybe you are not even sure if this is new, this fleck of brownie crumb. This molehill. This moth. Or the other one. The one right next to it.
Maybe, just maybe, your nipple has always been a little darker there, around the rim. Maybe these are freckles. You have freckles everywhere, on your scalp, between your toes, arms, fingers, near your eyes. You are speckled and many colored. Maybe your nipples are, too. Maybe you have never noticed.
You are almost forty.
- The Suburbanite and The Pamphlet of Doom
These days, a stylish pamphlet has taken up residence in the wooden bowl I keep on my kitchen counter—a catch all bowl, low and long, carved from a single piece of cypress. On top of charging cables and purse candy, an emergency flashlight, the wrinkled bits of paper and bobby pins and earrings and coins I shed when I get home is The Pamphlet—too big, too glossy, WAY too fancy for the rest of the junk in the bowl.
The Pamphlet demands attention.
If it were yours, it’d be all you could see when you step in the room. You’d wander to the refrigerator out of boredom, see The Pamphlet, and wander right back out. It’s a real appetite killer. An excellent diet tool.
You might even begin avoiding the kitchen completely.
Buying a new cable to charge your phone.
The truth is, The Pamphlet is much, much too big and glossy and fancy for its job. Disturbingly so. Every time I look at it, I imagine some poor graphic designer nodding doubtfully as the client says over and over, “Can’t you make these dire warnings, I don’t know, SEXIER?”
Because that’s The Pamphlet’s job: Warning us fragile humans that one of the risk factors for hereditary breast cancer is that “your family has had someone diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50.”
I was in my early twenties when my mother was diagnosed. She was in her early forties. Roughly the age I am now.
The Pamphlet is not exactly best seller reading, not even in the self-help section, but it has friends in high places. Several years ago, Angelina Jolie had the genetic test it advertises. Credits it for saving her life. It’s the sort of endorsement you listen to.
I approach the bowl. “So, uh, just anyone in your family with an early diagnosis is a problem, right?” I say to The Pamphlet.
“Well, your mother is certainly a good start,” it seems to answer.
I pull a Werther’s Original from between its sexy folds and chew on that.
- Cornholio Behaving Badly
Let’s call the older gentleman who suggested I ask my boyfriend to beat me with a baseball bat Cornholio. There’s no physical resemblance between him and Mike Judge’s character, still the name feels like a good fit.
It is about a year after my mother’s diagnosis, a time when I am still thinking only in terms of before and after, and I have known Cornholio for nearly a whole semester when he says this to me.
Don’t worry, he’s joking.
He sincerely believes he is being funny.
Perhaps before someone says something like this to you, this violent thing he thinks is the height of wit, you are kind to him. Maybe you help him do his algebra homework once or twice a week, every single week, in the free drop-in tutoring lab where you get paid a dollar or so over minimum wage to be of help to anyone who needs it. Even annoying Cornholios.
In the weeks before he says this thing, this joke, you tell him a linear equation is a lot like ordering pizza—x is the number of toppings, y is the cost of the pizza—and that he can do it; let’s try it one more time. You are a math cheerleader (A meerleader? A chath?). Your job is to be the embodiment of the kitten poster—Hang in there!
In the before of this event, you tell the other tutors that he’s really very sweet, in his own way; you don’t mind helping him; he’ll catch on.
But here is the thing, in the after, you won’t give a rat’s ass anymore. And not just about him.
Cornholio used a cane to walk and he swung it to punctuate his really, really excellent joke.
The lab was empty that day. A lull before finals panic. He liked to stall at the beginning of sessions. To run his mouth, leave his book closed. It was hard to get Cornholio focused.
He did resemble the character just a little.
“You know, your tattoo,” was how he started, pointing to the ink on my chest.
I smiled. My tattoos are very visible, especially this one, which sits right above my cleavage, smack dab in the middle of my chest.
Let’s call it a lifestyle choice.
People see visible ink and believe you want to talk about it, ESPECIALLY with strangers. I don’t. I just like being able to easily see my tattoos, my own skin. No craning my neck. It’s always right there if I look down. Still, I try to be nice. Like an ambassador for those of us that polite society so politely calls “freaks.” A mission of peace.
Cornholio smiles back at me. His teeth are excessively straight and white. No air between any of them. Dentures. The smile he flashes is not comforting. Not because of those huge, perfect teeth, but because it’s one of those shit-grins people give before they say something they think is ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC.
His pointing finger hovers dangerously close to touching the thickest part of my breast. He isn’t even really pointing at my tattoo. His aim is off. “If you wanted attention so bad,” he says after that weird, grinning pause, that set up, “Why didn’t you just get your boyfriend to beat you with a baseball bat.”
This is how people talk about my body.
He finally drops his finger, chokes up on his cane, his bat, sets his legs, and swings it through the air.
Cornholio is nothing if not a real physical comedian.
- Fine Wine and the Art of Body Shaming (A Master Class)
She is older than my mother, dressed much better than either I or my mother ever has. She is like a fashionable window treatment, which is to say that the jewel toned layers that swing around her thin body are much too fine to be compared to any word as mundane as “curtains.”
She looks like money.
“Try the spring rolls,” she says. This charity art show is her baby. Though we have met a few times, it is all I really know about her—charity, art, and clothes that are decidedly not from Old Navy or Target. There is a language barrier between us, and we have occasionally had trouble understanding each other’s accents, but more importantly, there is a hell of a class barrier. We’ve talked very little before now.
“Are they good?” I ask.
She puts one on my plate. “I made them,” she says, adding another two to my little hors d’oeuvres pile. She takes a sip from her white wine. Graceful. Looks me up and down, adds, “I wish I too did not care how much I eat.”
She sounds like the script to a sitcom has been run through Google translate and come out the other side to stab me awkwardly. I check my torso for blood as inconspicuously as I can with a plate of food in one hand and a glass of unnamed red in the other.
I know I haven’t heard her wrong but can’t stop the “hmm?” from coming out my lips. It is compulsive.
“My daughter is like you. Age at least. Not so round. She is a dainty eater. Have more.”
Another woman joins us before I can respond, but let’s face it, I had no response. It’s the sort of thing I will find a snappy retort to only when I am brushing my teeth, the foam a little yellow under those cheap bathroom lights.
I have never met the woman who joins us, but I don’t think Window Treatment has either. She is also older than my mother and dressed in swinging layers, these more earthy and cheaper than Window Treatment’s. Chunky jewelry swings on top of them. Her accent is a deeper southern than mine, two generations deeper.
“Look at you,” she says, gesturing directly at my breasts. “Look at her,” she says to Window Treatments. Her friend walks up and Chunky Jewelry tugs on our new companion’s arm. “Look at those,” she says.
Google is strangely unhelpful. No matter what combination of search words you try, the results are unsatisfactory. Terrifying? Certainly. Weird? Absolutely. Gross? Without a freaking doubt. But, nonetheless, unsatisfactory. Nothing actually fits.
You want to pretend that surrounded by art and food and people, three strange old ladies will not suddenly start talking about your breasts as if you aren’t even there. But I promise you, they will. They will go on for a while. An oddly long time for the dissection of a living stranger’s body. Their scalpels curiously probe at your hips and tits and the pouch of belly you don’t work as hard as you should to hide (or get rid of). One may even caress the smooth fatty part of your upper arm, a finger nail’s width from your right boob.
If they were men, you would know exactly what to do. You have been handling men since you were thirteen. You have gotten fairly adept at it, if not always successful. But when women touch you. Talk about you, you are always flummoxed.
Of course, the women have also been doing it since you were thirteen.
No one at the art show calls you fat. But the thin crows flapping around you talk extensively about the ride of your shirt and the way you enjoy the meatballs on your plate. They have no problem saying things about the size of your breasts. “So voluptuous!” one says. “Even if I had them, I’d have to cover them up,” she adds.
This is the way strangers talk about your body.
Window Treatments nods her head and says with enthusiasm, “And look how much she eats.”
You gulp your red and remind yourself to lie still and quiet, think of England, and take it like a good girl.
- The Blackening, Part Deaux (Still Isn’t Cancer)
It takes me a year to make an appointment with my gynecologist, a year to say to the receptionist, “Yeah, so there’s this weird thing going on with my nipples.”
She asks me to explain.
“They’re sort of turning black.”
During this year, the dark spots grow, converge until they ring and slide across much of one tip, become a short, dotted line around parts of the other, then (miraculously?) some of them flake off.
Off my nipples.
BITS OF MY NIPPLES FLAKE OFF.
During this year, I convince my husband there is nothing wrong. Everything is so small, it is easy to convince him, until everything is not so small.
And besides, they are my nipples. This is my problem.
That is how I see it. And I do not want to make a fuss. If I let him worry, I will have to worry, after all.
Google is strangely unhelpful.
No matter what combination of search words you try, the results are unsatisfactory. Terrifying? Certainly. Weird? Absolutely. Gross? Without a freaking doubt. But, nonetheless, unsatisfactory. Nothing actually fits.
Forget the diagnoses, look at the pictures.
None of those nipples look like your nipples. It is like scanning the worst porn ever. You definitely keep these pictures a secret. Tell no one. Anytime you cannot sleep, you search for them. At three in the morning, you lie on your side in bed, shielding the light from your cell phone so as not to wake your partner, not to break the small sounds of their breath, and you look at the diseased nipples of other women and think of your own, mutter so quietly that you can feel the words fluttering in your chest but cannot hear them, your husband cannot hear them: “Not cancer. Not cancer. Please don’t be cancer.”
It is the worst hobby ever.
- The Agony of These Feet
I don’t begin crying immediately when the podiatrist tells me he has to permanently remove both my big toenails, but that’s just because I will myself not to blink or breathe or even move my head much. It turns out, this is an unsustainable strategy.
It is not fear of pain that drives the tears when they come—and boy howdy, do they ever come—although when he explains how he will use “acid to kill the nailbeds,” I am appropriately terrified.
Sex scientists are the sort of unsung heroes the rest of us rarely think about. And let me tell you, they deserve your adulation.
Let me repeat that: Acid. To kill. My nailbeds.
No, the reason I cry is a strange and exciting brand-new fear I didn’t even know was possible: the fear that my feet will look bizarre. And let me tell you, this wasn’t normal fear. It was full blown, hyperventilating panic.
Even if you are not the kind of woman who cares what her feet look like. Even if you hate pedicures not just because of the deadly combination of a stranger simultaneously tickling and stabbing your feet, but because pedicures take off all that hard, protective skin that allows you to walk for hours. Barefoot. Uphill. Both ways. On hot pavement. In hell. Even if you have goddamn warrior feet. Are good with their ugliness. Even if you have damn well earned your ugly feet.
You still may panic.
I call my mother from the car. Sobbing.
“He—he says he needs to—needs to—needs to,” I couldn’t get it out.
“You need to breathe,” my mother says. She is the sort of calm that a mother gets as she steels herself to find out her child is dying.
I sound like I am dying.
My mother’s right breast has been removed for nearly twenty years at this point.
“Leigh. You need to calm down. You need to breathe.”
Vanity thy name is open-toed shoes.
My mother, strangely enough, takes the whole thing in easy, peasy stride.
- The Blackening: Don’t Call it a Threequel
My gynecologist is perplexed by my nipples.
She says she doesn’t think it’s cancer. “Especially not the way it’s—” She is choosing her words carefully. Very carefully. “On both of them. Cancer’s almost never unilateral like this.”
I am without a doubt her first pair of blackening nipples. The confidence this instills is not profound.
In the days leading up to this appointment, I became convinced that she will need to do a scraping. The blackening has overtaken the tip or my left nipple, a scaly pasty, and this, I am sure, is where she will strike, scalpel pressed like a knife against a neck. “Your secrets!” the scalpel wielder in my head hollers, and I spill. I tell everything.
I’ve become so obsessed with this idea, that I’ve taken to repeating the word over and over to myself. “Scraping. Scraping. Skkrape. Ing.”
I say it to my husband. To my mother.
I say it to my toast as crumbs dislodge against my butter knife. I say it to the microwave instead of cleaning it. I work myself into a tearful frenzy. I am again the stereotype I hate.
This reaction is, of course, based entirely upon my near encyclopedic knowledge of television doctors. And common sense, I guess?
She laughs when I ask, my voice all aquiver, “Will—will you have to take a—a scraping?”
She seems hesitant to even touch my breasts, moving her head back and forth as she peers at them from a safe distance. “No.”
It has been a turbulent ride, and I feel a mixed bag of utter relief and vague disappointment. I came here to be tortured in the name of medicine, after all. Both emotions are themselves fleeting. “I’m just going to check for discharge,” she adds.
Then she uses the word “palpate.”
It’s no scraping, but it’ll do.
* * *
My nipple problem is above her pay grade.
I get a mammogram.
“Pay close attention to the nipple.”
I get another one.
“Pay close attention to the nipple.”
Are these humans so jaded that had they not been told, my many-hued nipples would have gone unnoticed? Am I nothing special?
“Pay close attention to the nipple.”
Finally, I see the breast specialist. She is a gorgeous woman. She looks strong. In charge. Her voice is kind. She likes my tattoos.
She is maybe more than a breast specialist. A breast goddess?
“Will you—have to do—a—a scraping.”
It takes seconds for her to diagnose me with keratosis of the nipples. She is nonchalant. “It happens. Do you sunbathe topless?”
The last bathing suit I bought had a built-in skirt and fabric so thick and “shaping” I longed for something less restrictive that I might be able to actually swim in, like a good old-fashioned corset. “Nope.”
“That can cause it sometimes. But, well, it happens.”
Suddenly, I feel great shame.
What I have forgotten until this very moment is the scaly grey patch of skin near my collarbone. In my defense it is light grey, not the deep darkness of existential grey. It has also already been diagnosed by a dermatologist. Keratosis.
“Honestly, I am glad you came in. I was looking at your chart. Your mother was pretty young when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.”
She hands me The Pamphlet.
- Nipple Madness!
Sex scientists are the sort of unsung heroes the rest of us rarely think about. And let me tell you, they deserve your adulation. Still, unless your horse has lost his drive, your ocean refuses high tide, your cowboy just won’t ride, or your genitals appear to be on what I am sure medical professionals call “the fritz,” you probably forget these brave humans even exist, much less that they spend their lives watching primates orgasm in machines for your pleasure.
Not even hot primates, if we are going to be honest here. Could be Bill and Pat from across the street, you know the couple with the trampoline and no kids? Could even be you, if you’ve signed up. You’d know if it was you, though.
Also, there’s a lot of math.
There are three ways the people I know talk about breasts:
In other words, we talk about breasts as if they are an object you’ve been asked to carry for other people’s pleasure and needs and at your own peril. But that is not the start and end of all things boob. Ask the sex scientists, if you don’t believe me.
I have a secret, I am one of what those superhero scientists have found are somewhere between the 1% (Kinsey, Masters, and Johnson) or 29% (Otto) of women who can orgasm from breast stimulation.
Yes. You read that correctly.
It turns out, that nipples are wired to light up your “genital sensing brain regions” (Komisaruk). For most women, that means that their breasts function as a pretty great erogenous zone. And for an unknown amount of lucky others, they may as well be the on switch to Vegas, baby.
Your breasts are yours.
- There Are No Jokes in Nine
We are taking our nightly walk when I tell my husband that this isn’t just my decision. And though he disagrees, he hears me out.
If you get The Pamphlet, you will have a choice to make. You will have to decide what you want to know. You will have to decide what you do not want to know.
There will be a time before the test. There will be a time after the test.
“It’s your decision. It’s your body.”
This is not the way most people talk about my flesh. My meat. My body.
But it is always the way he does. It is always the way he has.
If I decide I want to know, and I have the gene, I will have three new choices.
Know and do nothing. Know and remove my breasts, my nipples while they are still healthy flesh. Know and take a low dose of chemotherapy every single day for the rest of my life.
If I do have the gene, it is likely that I will get cancer, but not guaranteed.
If I do not have the gene, I am not safe from breast cancer. My chances are just lower.
I do not want the test.
Several years ago my husband called me. I was still in bed when the phone rang. It seemed like mere seconds since he’d woken me, said, “I’m going to work,” and kissed me. Seconds since I’d fallen back asleep to the click of our front door lock sliding back into place.
He tried to sound calm as he explained that he’d been hit by a car on his motorcycle. That he was in an ambulance. If you were listening in, you may have thought he was simply calling to say he needed his insurance card. It was all he really mentioned, after all. You may have missed what I heard: something was very, very, very wrong.
After, I learned exactly what illness looks like through the lens of marriage.
It looks like your own shattered body as you clean your lover’s wounds. It is worse. It looks like your own greatest fears in blood and cotton and antiseptic technicolor. It is worse. It looks like your love spilled out. It is worse. It looks like nothing you know how to explain. It is worse.
This is my body. But it would be our cancer.
It is the only thing I know for sure.