I’ve always considered myself a “breast man,” bustiers, bikinis, the Wonderbra; all windows for my insatiable voyeuristic appetite. And I am totally enamored of my wife’s beautiful body – in addition to all her other wonderful qualities, of course.
Imagine, then, the fear I felt one Sunday morning when, in an unconvincingly light tone, my wife told me she’d felt a lump in her breast. The word cancer was far from my mind as we sat in the gynecologist’s office awaiting her mammogram. Even during the brief strobe-like flashes when my brain registered the worst possibilities, my thoughts were more of treatment than a disease: Lumpectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy.
Over the weekend, while awaiting the results, my wife and I did not mention cancer. I felt I was doing her a favor by not talking about something over which we had no control.
The results of the mammogram were negative – but I quickly learned this was no guarantee that the problem would quietly go away. My wife had felt a lump. Her doctor had felt it. Her advice was to return in three months for a follow-up exam. It took only three weeks for my wife to become convinced that something was wrong. Our next appointment was with a specialist, and only when I heard the word biopsy did I admit to myself that these people were seriously talking about the breast cancer.
In the hospital waiting room, my wife asked if I would come in with her to see the doctor. “You mean while he examines you?” I asked, startled. She stared at me. I’d always considered the examining room a place of utmost privacy. I hadn’t imagined she’d want me in there, but that look told me I’d clearly erred in my judgment.
The male doctor was disarmingly handsome and rather young. He struck me as being more like an advertising executive than a highly regarded oncologist. He barely noticed me as he and my wife discussed her medical history in great detail. They spoke easily of ovulation and breast density and other mysterious topics that usually remain locked away from a man. In some odd way, I felt like I was watching my wife getting picked up at a bar by an attractive intelligent stranger.
My wife lay back on the examining table, and the doctor deftly untied the strings of her gown. He pulled the flimsy cotton back, exposing her fully I averted my eyes, as if trying not to view a car wreck. I’d adored my wife’s breasts. But I couldn’t make her problem go away. My touch was nothing more than sexual or affectionate. This stranger’s hands could heal. Maybe it was jealousy.
The doctor examined each breast with firm resolve. At that moment, I was struck with shame and humiliation: I didn’t even know which breast had the lump. How could I have not even thought to ask? After a cursory exploration, the doctor focused on her left breast and began a painstaking exam every inch, as if he were making a map. At one point, he turned his head toward the ceiling as his fingers manipulated her nipple. I could see that his eyes were tightly shut. He looked like he might have been praying.
Ever since that first, heart-stopping adolescent moment when my wife allowed me to feel beneath her shirt, I have been both soothed and excited at the bosom of countless women. Yet it was only in a cold and clinical hospital examining room that I began to understand how a woman might view her breasts. Harbinger of adolescence, billboard of sexuality, provider of her baby’s milk. Two organs from which I have taken nothing but pleasure can symbolize an entire cycle of life for a woman.
In that small, cold examining room I received an education on something called a fibroadenoma. The doctor felt confident that my wife’s lump was a coiled tissue, a cyst that can be cured upon.
Six months later, I accompanied my wife to the hospital and the doctor examined her breasts again. I felt no jealousy while he performed the breast examination, which produced the same comforting diagnosis. We are safe for now.
It might do every man good to accompany his partner on a visit to her gynecologist. The experience did nothing to desexualize my feelings for my wife. I am still profoundly attracted to her breasts, but I am also keenly aware of the vulnerable, precious person behind the sexy façade.