What getting a mastectomy as a teenage boy taught me about masculinity
Just after my 18th birthday, I had a mammogram. What I knew about mammograms was that women my mom’s age had them — not teenage boys. Yet there I was one day after school, shirtless, in a dim room where a large machine sat with an open mouth, waiting to bite down when the nurse maneuvered the skin of my chest into its cold, flat teeth. As I soon found out, men can also have breast cancer.
Today, conversations about gender are common. The acceptable behaviors we assign to bodies are questioned. Not so in the early ’90s. Not in conservative, deep-red Texas, where I grew up. The idea of “being a man” had distinct definitions. “How much can you bench press?” “How many beers can you chug?” and “How fast is your car?” were common questions. I wasn’t the guy with impressive answers. I also wasn’t on sports teams — never had been. So I already teetered close to the edge of not being a man, in many of my peers’ eyes. Never mind that I struggled with my sexuality and the feminization attached to that, though it would be years before I came out. That I might have breast cancer in this hyper-masculine world was highly ironic.
Months before my mammogram, I’d felt a growth above my right nipple. It slowly grew until I could see it — the size of a cheese puff, hard and painful to touch. I didn’t tell my parents at first. After a while, I couldn’t ignore it. When they finally saw and felt it, the issue quickly became doctor worthy.
Almost 13% of women will have breast cancer in their lifetime. Of breast cancer cases, 1% are men. But it’s more likely advanced when diagnosed, because of less awareness and later detection. In other words, I might have ignored it too long. Was it too late?
My mom and I went to see a specialist. He was a friendly gray-haired guy, super chatty. He prodded and nodded; then, the word surgery came up. I sat on the examining table, quiet, listening to his voice. He sounded far away. He wanted to remove the growth just in case. But it probably isn’t cancer. I was confused. I think it’s fine. Let’s carve it out anyway.
I looked at my mom as we drove home — her eyes directly on the road. She later told me reality didn’t sink in until she saw the word mastectomy on the hospital chart. Why did just-in-case surgery have the same name as surgery for when a cancer-ridden breast is cut off?
Before surgery, I kept it secret. I could just imagine the ridicule if kids at school knew I was having breast surgery. But at night I’d stand alone in the bathroom, door locked, and lean close to the mirror to look at my right breast. I traced along the hard curve using my finger as a scalpel. Would there be an indentation, I wondered?
The surgery was set for a Friday, just weeks after meeting the doctor. A suggestion of urgency as confusing as the fact it was happening. I told only one person — a teacher — because I wouldn’t be there to hand in a paper that was due. I said surgery and didn’t elaborate. She pushed for details. I leaned in close and whispered as I explained the rest. She looked at me, brow furrowed, unsure what to say. I shrugged and walked away, red-faced.
Many people describe what it’s like drifting into an anesthetized dream — blinding lights overhead, counting down from 10 but not finishing. But there’s only one thing I remember about surgery. After it was over, I came to, sat up on the gurney, and said to the nurses, sleepy but definitive, “Don’t let my mom see my tattoo!” They laid me down and laughed. I wasn’t joking. The year before, I’d gotten my first tattoo. My parents didn’t know. This was not the time to reveal. I showed it to the nurses. They agreed to keep it covered by my hospital gown. The rest of the day is blank.
I tend to tell the funny parts of that bizarre time when I share with friends. What I don’t often share is what it felt like to have exploratory surgery for cancer in high school. In fact, I never do.
After surgery, the worst began. The incision caused pus to build up. I had to wrap my right side tight with a bandage. As days went by and pus pooled under the skin, my breast looked like the saggy boob of an 80-year-old. It felt like a woman’s body was invading mine, at a time I was desperate not to be perceived that way.
As dreadful as wearing what I called my “half bra” was seeing my lopsided chest. I wouldn’t look in the mirror. My body was betraying me. Not only grotesque, but the way it was happening. The growing boob, more than the cut-out mass, became the worst offender.
Walking down the long school hallways, I’d sling my backpack over my left shoulder and maneuver between-class crowds, careful to avoid bumping into anyone. At my locker, hung high on the wall, I’d stand a long time, unable to lift my right arm to the combination lock. I’d fumble with my left hand for a code that had long since become second nature when I used my right. Sometimes, you only recognize the parts of your body you rely on when they become unreliable. More than once, I was late to class. I didn’t explain.
Every Wednesday, after school, I went to the doctor’s office alone for him to drain the pus. As he chatted about the weather, he’d insert a thick needle above my nipple and start pressing. I could feel the needle under my skin. Bloody yellow liquid spewed into a syringe the size of a carrot. The pain was outrageous. But I didn’t want a saggy boob anymore. I went back dutifully for two months until the pus stopped, determined to bear it.
In the end, the biopsy did not reveal cancer. The detail absent the story, which you’d think would stand out, is that I can’t remember getting that information. And I can’t say how long it took. What I do remember is how insistent I was to keep anyone from knowing about my breast surgery and half bra. I remember how horrified I was by how my body changed. How I wore perhaps the most definitive display of femininity. That’s the strength of a masculine ideal so painfully narrow. Decades later, the lingering anxiety about not being a man still blinds me to the fact I could have had cancer at eighteen.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like today. If growing up in this moment would lend that disturbing ordeal less heft. I recognize there’s more work to be done before we embrace any body for anybody. And yet, I am hopeful. Maybe a boy’s experience now wouldn’t mirror mine 30 years ago. Or, at least, he can own his full truth.
As for my body, the doctor did a great job. One tiny scar runs along the dark, top part of my nipple. It remains sensitive. It hurts when it’s bumped, or cold, or when thin shower sprays hit it. Still, until recently, the look of my chest betrayed nothing. As my body changes with age, though, something has surfaced that didn’t all these years. The indentation I stressed about has become visible. The bottom curve of my right breast looks as if a piece has been sliced off. I guess it was. Plenty of life stories are written on the body. Now, when I look in the mirror, I will always see this one.
Several years after high school, on the National Mall in Washington D.C., I did a benefit run with a friend to raise money for breast cancer research. Joining us were hundreds of women who wore pink shirts with the names of loved ones — lost to or battling breast cancer. A feeling of levity among the runners belied the gravity of what led so many to gather. I didn’t talk about my breast surgery or boob that day. Even so, I felt the sobering reality of a shared bond with these women few men will ever know.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com