Cyborg Megan on Breasts, Cancer, and Gender

by Megan Lemming

guest blogger/best friend/self-described "Grade-A Homosexual"

The phlebotomist looked at the picture on my profile, which had captured me with a full head of hair and eyelashes and eyebrows, then looked back at me. “Is this you?” she asked incredulously, pointing at my picture. It’s amazing what a head of hair can do for your entire face region, apparently.

“Yes, that’s me,” I replied and sighed, averting my eyes.

“Wow, I never would have been able to tell.”

Later, during another interaction with an echocardiogram technician: “Do you have implants?” he asked indifferently. He kept his eyes on the monitor, pushing the probe onto the mass in my breast and spreading the ultrasound gel as if it were butter on toast. I was the toast. Was I going to be toast – dead, deceased, resting in peace – sometime soon?

“No, that’s my tumor,” I replied. I suppose he didn’t read my chart, and perhaps he’s not privy to that information. Maybe he performs ultrasounds all day, not knowing the medical reasons, to a dozen different people, and then goes home at the end of the day to a partner or kids or both, and leaves his work behind. Maybe he doesn’t have to think about how tactfully he asks his questions about implants to patients who instead have tumors in their breasts. Assuming he did not have access to my chart, there are more appropriate ways to ascertain that information.

I’ve always had small breasts, which suit my figure well. Anything much larger would hurt my back, I think. While this has never bothered me (since puberty anyway, when all the girls in school were “growing” seemingly except for me and I thought, “What is WRONG with me?”), I do remember a friend of a friend in college making fun of my breast size. I’m actually glad it happened for the first time so late in life; if it had happened during adolescence I’m sure I would have keeled over. But men such as this fellow who criticize women’s bodies have the luxury of not having the size of their peni (a word of my own invention which I prefer to the term “penis,” which is pronounced with a long e and i) judged by the masses at a quick glance. Men only have their peni judged in intimate, sexual settings, whereas women always have the sizes of their breasts evaluated by wandering and occasionally inquiring eyes.

Although I am not bothered by my breast size, I do find it irritating that I got breast cancer with such small ones. Because really, if I’m going to get cancer, I should at least have been able to boast large enough nay-nays (my new made up word for breasts, because why not) to make the cancer worth my while. I don’t know if any other small-breasted breast cancer patients or survivors have ever had this same tongue-in-cheek thought, but I imagine I can’t be the only one.

When I was diagnosed at the age of 31 last fall, my surgeon recommended that I get genetic testing since there is a higher chance I carry cancer genes (thanks Mom and Dad). The results would help inform her what type of surgery I should undergo. If I carried the dangerous BRCA genes, my chance of getting breast cancer again would be high, and my chance of getting ovarian cancer might be high, as well. In those cases, doctors often recommend a bi-lateral mastectomy (removal of tissue in both breasts) and an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries).

As I awaited the results of my genetic testing, I thought about the implications of having both breasts and both ovaries removed. Our culture places so much value on the rigid concept of gender that only recently have gender-neutral pronouns entered our lexicon. And most people don’t even know what those pronouns are or what gender-neutral even means. If I had my breasts and ovaries removed, would society consider me less of a woman? Surely, the young man in college who made fun of my small breasts would, indeed, consider me less of a woman if I had none at all. Perhaps that young man is not representative of the larger population, but in my personal experience and what I know of our culture at large, I can’t help but think that he is.

I do think that women (and I’m including trans women and trans men here as well) would have a very different perspective regarding the status of my “womanhood” post-mastectomy and post-oophorectomy, especially after considering my medical circumstances. Men, I think, would have more of a tendency to ignore me, or not see me as a woman, or not see me as human. The last item in that list is quite common with women worldwide, though – men often dismiss us as not fully human. Maybe this cancer is providing me insights I wouldn’t have otherwise gained if I were healthy.

The results of my genetic testing came back as I was getting my port accessed for chemo. For those of you who don’t know about the latest and greatest in cancer technology, doctors can now use devices that are implanted between the muscle and skin in the chest or abdomen for chemotherapy infusions, instead of using arm veins each time. This protects the arm veins from weakening during the course of chemo. I’m a proud temporary-port-owner and often refer to myself as Cyborg Megan.

My phone rang as the nurse was sterilizing the area in my upper chest. I knew it was a hospital number. “Hello, this is Megan,” I answered.

“Hi Megan, this is your geneticist. We met about a month ago. I have your test results. Is this a good time?”

“Yep, I’m here at the hospital for chemo. Go ahead, I’m all ready.”

“Well, I have good news. You don’t carry BRCA1 or BRCA2.”

Now that I was not ready for. I was quite shocked actually. I thought I would have one gene or the other. Of the 18 genes that were tested, one came back inconclusive and the rest were negative. The past four weeks, since I had my blood drawn for testing, had been constant worrying about a variety of things: the test results, future potential surgeries, medical bills, my identity.

The most important item in the aforementioned list, at least from a personal standpoint, is my identity – as a breast cancer patient, a possible future cancer survivor, a possible breast-less and ovary-less woman, and of course, let’s not neglect a possible future dead woman from cancer.

The network of hospitals I attend for treatment is attentive, efficient, and caring (99% of the time). It’s a part of the MD Anderson Cancer Network, and all of the decorative signage in buildings, on signs, and on pamphlets cross out the word Cancer. It’s supposed to be inspiring and hopeful, I think. I wish that I could cross out this entire experience, unless I live of course. Then I’ll be stronger for it, or at least that’s the expectation. I’ll entitle my memoir My Brush with Death or something else alarming and pitiable.

What I really wish I could cross out are the crass comments people have made: “Is this you?” “I never would have been able to tell” “Do you have implants?” The next time hospital employees address my appearance, my nay-nays, or anything else related to my sickness, I want them to consider first and foremost my full humanity. And then I want to enjoy my art therapy and my roast beef sandwich for lunch because those little joys make me, Cyborg Megan, feel like a VIP in the infusion center.