You should see my tits. Right now. They’re quite impressive.

My right breast is an A-cup, a small, soft mound of flesh with a pert pink nipple the size of a half-dollar. It’s familiar, and looks much like it does in the countless photos and movies it’s appeared in over the past couple of decades. It’s not gonna stop traffic or anything, but it looks good. My left breast, on the other hand, maybe could stop traffic. It’s straight out of a horror film—the size of a cantaloupe and just as hard, skin stretched taut, with a long black trail of stitches on the side. The nipple is a psychedelic swirl of pinks and deep purples. The center of it is black. Black . Still, I have to admire the progress. The wound has closed up, and, apart from the nipple, the skin color is approaching normal. A week ago my breast was a giant yellow, green, and purple bruise, ringed with subcutaneous plastic tubing attached to a drain bulb.

A week before that it looked much like its neighbor. My breast went to band practice to prepare for the Coco Cobra and the Killers reunion show, swam laps at Cascade Athletic Club, and worked way too hard juggling three jobs: stripping, bartending, and writing. It also took the stage at Mary’s Club one last time after twelve years—naked and proud throughout the strains of its swan song, the Stones’ “Doncha Bother Me,” rising and falling with thousands of breaths, and stoically covering for an aching, grieving heart. Then, on September 26, 2008, it submitted itself to the surgeon’s knife to remove some tiny bits of cancer that had taken up residence.

The following is a travelogue of my journey through the wilds of breast cancer, and an ode to a body part that always more than did its job.

Thanks for the memories.

R.I.P.

•••••••••••••••••••••••• 

breast-doc-office

New home: Doc’s office

Lump

Like most women, my entrée into the world of breast cancer started with a lump, found by my erstwhile beau during one of his routine “breast exams.” The lump wasn’t exactly difficult to discover: my breasts aren’t much more than lumps, and a lump on a lump is, well, noticeable. Still, if not for him, I wouldn’t have caught that gumdrop-size nodule over my heart for a good while longer. And cancer, as I’ve learned, really wrecks the place the longer it’s in town.

Next I did what any stripper would do and told the girls at the office. Strip-club dressing rooms can be potent nuclei of female power and amazing sources of information—like covens or sewing circles. The strippers said lumps are common. They also insisted that I see a doctor.

Down at Old Town Clinic, my nurse practitioner, Dana Mozer, fondled me thoroughly. After examining every centimeter of my breast, she pronounced that my lump wasn’t of much concern. Good lumps, like mine, move around; bad lumps stay stubbornly in place. Good lumps also grow and shrink, sometimes depending on caffeine intake, so we scheduled another appointment and I cut down on coffee—but two weeks later my lump was the same size. Although I was only thirty-three and have no family history of cancer—breast or otherwise—she booked me for my first mammogram.

If this is virgin territory for y’all, a mammogram involves flattening one’s breast like a pancake between two hard plastic plates and taking images. My small breasts proved difficult for the pancake-maker to get hold of, so the scans had to be repeated several times. Next, I had an ultrasound, which can uncover abnormalities not revealed by the mammogram. Both the mammographer and the ultrasound tech thought my breasts looked perfectly normal. I was hugely relieved … until the overseeing doc came in, held up my images, and brusquely pointed out a handful of tiny white dots—calcifications that were suspicious for cancer. She ordered a biopsy.

I pursed my lips and tried to hide my irritation. So far the doctor appointments were primarily an inconvenience, but a biopsy? That meant losing a chunk of my breast! It also meant there might be something seriously wrong with me, yet all I could think of was what it meant for my mortgage. How would I strip with a chunk missing from my breast? How big would this chunk be? Would I be able to hide it with Dermablend?

 

The Wait

“The Wait” is my favorite Pretenders song ever. Its punk verve has steered me through many a rough patch. But the forty-eight hours between my biopsy and “The Phone Call” (another great Pretenders song) were a symphony of escalating anxiety.

I tried hard to put the questions out of my mind, and to convince myself that the tiny white dots were nothing out of the ordinary. Fortunately my mom was coming for her first visit in ten years, to see the house that my brother and I had bought and shared, so I distracted myself by frantically preparing for her arrival. I hadn’t mentioned a word of my breast adventures to my parents. I figured if I did have cancer, I’d spare them the agony and tell them at Christmas, when (hopefully) I was on the mend. If I didn’t have cancer, why worry them with the possibility that I did?

By Friday, my results were overdue, and I was quietly losing it. I left a message with my nurse practitioner, then headed to my bartending shift at East End, where ten friends coincidentally appeared on a whim to say hello (a clear sign that something bad was about to happen). I was busy slinging drinks when the doc’s office left a message. I stepped outside to check it.

The Wentworth Chevrolet building was wonderfully bright and angular in the late August sun. The building had probably been there a hundred years. I took refuge in its shadow and prayed to it that our circumstances would not change—it would continue to be its old self and I’d remain the healthy bartender across the street—and that my voice mail would contain nothing but good news.

“Hello, Viva. Your appointment with the surgeon is at 10 a.m. next Friday.”

My stomach sank and my hands started to shake. There was only one reason to see a surgeon: to get something cut. I frantically dialed my nurse practitioner, hoping to reach her before her weekend started. When I got her on the line, her voice held so much sorrow and empathy that I knew I was in trouble. Ductal carcinoma in situ Stage Zero, she said, and that she was sorry.

I walked back into the bar, told my friends I had cancer, then tried to hold it together while they fell apart. Somehow I made it through my shift. I drove home to my brother and mom—fresh off the plane from Minnesota—and chitchatted with them till they went to bed. Then I retreated to my back porch and, finally, wept.