First on the List

by Jennifer Meer
Originally Published: 

I serve my son his dinner and he gives me his signature glare: “Mom! It’s touching!”

He hates when his food touches on his plate. Everything needs its own neat and tidy space, as if life and all of its gastronomic pleasures should forever be served in a Bento-esque container so that the ketchup never EVER touches the salad. Never. But that’s not life and sometimes the ketchup is going to touch the salad. Just sometimes. “Deal with it,” I perhaps too hastily snap. “Sometimes you just can’t separate it all neatly.” Which is entirely true about dinner and sometimes true about life.

Over the past week or so, everything has seemed to collide and touch: the messy, the uncomfortable, and the wonderful. Life’s ketchup made its way all over that salad. The whole family came together from near and far for the Jewish new year. My daughter lost her first tooth. We celebrated my 37th birthday. We finally got around to giving the baby her Hebrew name just a few days shy of her 8 month birthday. And through all of these wonderful events I have just been waiting, waiting for the phone to ring, enjoying myself but with an asterisk: What if?

Two weeks ago I went for my first ever baseline mammogram. By most standards, I have zero risk factors for breast cancer. I am 37 years old. I have no family history of breast cancer. I don’t smoke. But I do have two very important things that put me at risk: I have breasts. I have two of them in fact. And the reality of what’s happening here is that if you have breasts, there is risk.

Everyone assured me that the spot that showed up on my mammogram was “friendly” looking but the doctors acknowledged they had nothing scientific to back up this friendly vibe they were getting from the symmetric looking circled spot on the images. They couldn’t find it on the ultrasound to investigate further. And the general wisdom was to just wait and see, to come back in six months and see if anything changed. But they acknowledged that it might not be friendly. That they really just didn’t know. And I couldn’t live six months in the gray of not knowing. I’d lived six days in the gray and I’d eaten my own weight in tater tots out of stress. For a variety of health reasons, I needed more information.

For me, more information meant a sterotactic biopsy. So right before the Jewish new year and the birthday and the baby naming and just after the lost tooth, I lay on a table last week with a hole cut out of the middle and my right breast dangling through. The whole thing took about 90 minutes. My breast looked like it had been run over by a truck. And then I waited.

All of this waiting and wondering for more information gives you lots of time to think and it made me wonder how in all of the things I manage to do for everyone else on any given day, I have never in all of my 37 years found the time to check my own breasts. The process of doing this, of carefully or not so carefully running my fingers in a circular motion over each breast would probably take approximately 45 seconds. Perhaps 60 if I’m trying to be particularly thorough. But there was always a reason I couldn’t. I had to rush in the shower before the kids’ show ended, I had to send this email, make this dinner, this lunch, shop, read, write, breathe, watch, talk, do anything but prioritize my own health.

This idea is turning over in my mind this morning as I pull into the pre-school parking lot where throngs of adorable children dressed in coordinated rain gear carefully make their way into the building. Ladybugs, dinosaurs, butterflies and fireman, all with their raincoats, rain boots and umbrellas, all selected to ensure that our little ones make their way inside in the safest, driest, and apparently most fashionable way possible. I look at the mothers accompanying them. Most (not all) look like me. They look wet, bedraggled, with babies on their hips and flip flops on their feet and up to their knees in puddles and not a raincoat or umbrella in sight. Of course this makes sense, right? That we should stand there completely soaking wet while we protect and care for our children? At what point did we make the conscious choice to put their needs entirely above our own? That the caring of them means we stop caring for ourselves?

We need to do this. And not for our children’s sake either. Women are often fed a number of messages of why they need to prioritize their own health, to do it for their children, their husbands and partners and jobs and families and a whole list of people and reasons but the truth is that women need to prioritize their health. Full stop. End of sentence. There is no because or for. Women just do because they matter, they are important, not in relation to other people, places or things but just because they have dignity and that means they take care of themselves for themselves. Because nothing and no one else matters on the list if they don’t start here.

So as I begin this 37th year, I hope you’ll indulge me by granting a few belated birthday wishes:

  • Give yourself a breast exam today. You don’t need to be perfect. You just need to look for changes. Mammograms are annual and while useful, generally don’t start until you are 40. A lot happens before then. And bad stuff can grow fast. The best way to protect yourself is to check yourself.
  • Remind yourself to check yourself. There are lots of useful clever little apps now that do just that. These include Keep a Breast and Your Man Reminder (an instant breast health classic).
  • If you are 40 or older, make sure you’ve got your mammogram scheduled. If you are under 40, ask your doctor about the potential of getting a “baseline” mammogram.
  • Make a donation to help support research for a cure. I am giving money here but there are lots of great causes. Give what you can. Just give.
  • Finally, share this message with anyone you know with breasts. Share it because you love them and you want to remind them that nothing else matters if they don’t start by prioritizing themselves and their health. This is important for no other reason other than the fact that they are important. Women matter not because they are sisters or mothers or wives or daughters but just because. They matter. Their health matters and it always needs to be the first thing on that seemingly never ending to-do list.

As for me? After six ridiculously long days I got the call yesterday from my doctor: just a lymphnode and nothing to worry about. I’ll be back in six months for a recheck. I don’t feel as though I dodged a bullet. I feel like someone opened my eyes, and an umbrella and reminded me to take care, and stay dry. I’m full of love and hope and some sort of titanium clip that now lives in my breast to mark where the doctors have been. I’m literally a marked woman now. But in truth, we all are.

So grab a boob, don’t be one. Take charge of your health today because you matter.

Related post: 8 Things A Mom Diagnosed With Breast Cancer Should Know

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