October 16, 2011

Seeing pink (updated)

Dreaming the Breasts
By Anne Sexton

strange goddess face
above my milk home,
that delicate asylum,
I ate you up.
All my need took
you down like a meal.

What you gave
I remember in a dream:
the freckled arms binding me,
the laugh somewhere over my woolly hat,
the blood fingers tying my shoe,
the breasts hanging like two bats
and then darting at me,
bending me down.

The breasts I knew at midnight
beat like the sea in me now.
Mother, I put bees in my mouth
to keep from eating
yet it did no good.

In the end they cut off your breasts
and milk poured from them
into the surgeon’s hand
and he embraced them.
I took them from him
and planted them.

I have put a padlock
on you, Mother, dear dead human,
so that your great bells,
those dear white ponies,
can go galloping, galloping,
wherever you are.

THE female breast is one of God’s most fervent expressions of His artistic vision when He created human beings.

Its shape is its own—not round, not oblong—it doesn’t fit any known geometric shape, so its clearly unique among all of His artwork. (They are bells, according to Anne Sexton.)

(Self-breast exam. This is also what OB-GYNs do on a woman's breasts when the latter is under 30.)

And its uses are so encompassing. Aside from adding allure to the female figure to help attract her mate, it nurses babies. From its nipple drops the first and most important nutrients for these tiny helpless infants, which hopefully affords them a healthy constitution when they are all grown-up.

But as Sexton’s poetry intimates, beautiful and nourishing as breasts can be, they can be touched by something sinister—in this case, breast cancer. (Sexton’s own mother Mary Gray Harvey died from it. When she was diagnosed with the condition, Harvey blamed it on Sexton who had just suffered a nervous breakdown. This was of course the 1950s where there was very little knowledge about the cause and effect of deadly diseases such as this. Finally undergoing a radical mastectomy, Harvey was disgusted by what she viewed was her mutilation. Sexton poignantly expresses her mother’s difficulties—and her uneasy relationship with Harvey—through this poem.)

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I finally had my very first mammogram.

We have no known case of breast cancer in the family, which is why I never actually went to get such an exam. But upon visiting an OB-GYN last week (and thanks to a generous health-card coverage), she pressed that I should get one. After all, I was, ahem, above 40. And whether there are cases of breast cancer in one’s family, all women are potentially at risk of the disease. Yes, just because we are women.

So in the mammogram room I stood, in my hospital gown partially open at the front. I was told to grip the handle of the machine, as the technician “arranged” my right boob first on one plate.

I will not lie...the examination hurt. The breast is squeezed by a plastic cover above and a metal plate underneath until that dreaded machine beeps, signalling that it can read your breast clearly. Then the radiologist hits a button to take its picture.

(The mammogram machine.)

But faster than one can say, “breast is best!”, it’s over. Well for one breast anyway. Then the radiologist does the other one. Ooof!

I winced the two times the mammogram machine read my breasts. But I guess it’s a good thing that we are women, because we are allowed to do just that. We are allowed to express our pain quietly or loudly, unlike the men who are forever doomed to keep it all in lest they be tagged as a wuss.

I must stress that the pain is tolerable though. Yes, it will make you yelp, but hardly will it make you scream. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the pain of giving birth, a mammogram will probably just rate a 2 or 3. For those who’ve never had children such as myself, I just think that the benefits of getting a mammogram far outweigh the slight inconvenience of getting one’s boob squeezed tightly.

Another exam my OB-GYN recommended was the breast ultrasound. While a mammogram is usually just the only exam required for breast cancer screening, an ultrasound does supplement the former in that it helps detect smaller breast cancers.

At least the ultrasound was relaxing. A woman just needs to lie on the bed, while the technician uses a hand-held device as small as a computer mouse which is connected to a machine with a screen. She then runs this device—cool to touch because of the gel used—over each breast to check for any tiny abnormalities.

Both these exams will take less than an hour of one’s time. I suggest though that it’s better to get all exams for our female parts done, in one sitting. So get your Pap Smear done as well. The latter helps detects any issues with our vagina and thereabouts. (As soon as a woman is sexually active, she needs to visit an OB-GYN annually. You need not be pregnant to visit one, but it does help if you’d be able to tell the physician or her assistant, the first day of your last menses just for their records. So check your calendar before going to your OB-GYN.)

(To take a reading of your breast, it is gently squeezed between a film plate underneath and a plastic cover above.)

According to the ICanServe Foundation, a local group that has devoted itself to increasing breast cancer awareness, and functions as a support group to those afflicted with the disease, “the Philippines has the highest incidence of breast cancer in Southeast Asia. Breast cancer is also one of the leading causes of death among Filipino women. Most women with breast cancer have no known risk factors except that they are women.” So the group stresses that we women have to be vigilant in protecting ourselves against it.

Early detection is the key in helping us battle or survive the disease.

For women to be able to take care of others, we need to take care of ourselves first.


ICanServeFoundation is currently selling gift items at The Power Plant Mall on all weekends of October. Proceeds from the sale support its advocacy projects.

To know more about breast cancer, go to the foundation’s portal at www.icanservefoundation.org/?page_id=299 or visit the National Cancer Institute.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday, in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was originally published on Oct. 14, 2011. Illustration and images from the web.)

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