Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Many years ago I worked at a gay and lesbian community center where part of our mission was health education. Then I advocated breast self-examinations and annual mammograms. Some data indicates that lesbians, particularly lesbians who have never given birth, might be at higher risk for breast cancer. In addition, this was in Detroit, and there are some environmental indications that breast cancer is more prevalent there.

I still advocate breast self-examinations. Personally, I love to touch my tits and do so regularly, but, at least one a month, I do so with the intentionality of determining if there is anything new, bumpy, or bulbous in my breasts. I’m not quite old enough to have annual mammograms, but I believe those screenings too and will be jumping to get my annual mammo when the time comes.

In addition to my early experience with health education, I’m a big believer in breast cancer screening and early detection because a dear friend of mine is a young survivor of breast cancer. She was diagnosed, in part, because of her insistence that something was wrong. She knew that her breasts needed attention even though initially doctors and screeners told her there was nothing wrong. She felt a pain in her tit and said, test again. Her cancer was caught early. She went through treatment and now is looking forward to seeing her eight-year-old daughter graduate from college.

Breast cancer screening and early detection is important. We all know that. Last fall, though, I learned about the complexities of screening and early detection. My beloved had her very first mammogram last September. I was excited for her. This was easy for me, I didn’t have to put my nips on a piece of glass and watch them be pressed flat. She did and she had some trepidations. So much so, that her first “baseline” mammogram was coming a few years past forty. Delayed because she was too busy and frankly, frightened.

Finally, though I insisted and so she tested. She went to the local screening facility and had her breasts smashed between two plates and pictures taken. I was thrilled for her to pass this life milestone. Then the telephone call came. There was something suspect on the film.

This resulted in a flurry of phone calls and consultations. What did it mean? Was this common? Something to be expected? What should we do? What were our options?

As a result of this being her first mammogram and consequently the baseline, it was impossible to determine anything about the suspect spot on the film. We were counseled, wait or consult a surgeon. We waited. Nervously. Anxiously.

She said she felt pain in her breast. The one with the spot on the film. We couldn’t wait a full six months for the next shots. She returned after four months. Back to the same screening facility. By her choice, she went alone. Disrobed. The machine again pressed her breasts flat. This time, no telephone call, just a letter. Everything was fine.

We were relieved. She’s committed to doing this annually. We learned that a part of the regular screening are these sorts of scares. Shadows on the film. Spots of indeterminate origin. Rescreening. Reviewing. Recalibrating.

It’s frightening, but in the end it’s worth it. Early detection of breast cancer dramatically boosts survival rates. So in that spirit, we’ll endure a few months of uncertainty and a few moments of discomfort. We’ll hope it makes a difference. I invite you to do the same. Touch your tits, and test them, too.

Word count: 614

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet who lives in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.

This is column #23 dated May 6, 2008 in the series, CIVILesbianIZATION