October marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Have you been checked out?
BY TATUM DE ROECK, IMAGES BY NADEZHDA MORYAK/PEXELS
My ex girlfriend touched my left breast, jumped back and yelled, “Jesus, how did you miss that?”
Not the reaction anyone wants, but ok. She was right. I had missed it and so did my current girlfriend.
I’d stopped checking for lumps because my breasts all felt bumpy to me. I was 35 and thought I had time before I needed to really worry about self-checks.
The ex leaned back in towards me. “Can I touch it again?”
As I was in a committed relationship, I was taking advantage of the fact the ex could legitimately touch my breast and remember what she was missing, although the ambiance of cancer considerably desexualised the moment.
I was living in Los Angeles at the time of my diagnosis and it was my primary care doctor who found my tumour during an annual pap smear appointment. She knew two of my aunties had cancer under 45 and promptly sent me for more tests.
The mammogram weirdly returned an “all-clear result’, as it turns out the rays can’t see as well through young and dense breast tissue. The ultrasound was the scan that showed the lump. It was so obvious what it was. The radiographer knew it was cancer, but couldn’t tell me. I wanted a cheery “bye, see you in five years”, but instead she kindly put her hand on my back and led me up the hallway to a nurse’s room. That was the moment I knew. It wasn’t benign.
At the time of my diagnosis I had been out, like out out. I presented lesbian talk shows, performed personal narrative storytelling shows and everyone knew waaaay too much about my sex life. During treatment I felt too vulnerable, too bald, too dependent, to always be out. Before a procedure in the hospital waiting room my girlfriend would sweetly go to hold my hand and I’d swat it away. In my pre-cancer life, I was proud to hold her hand, happy to swat away casual homophobia.
When I was in my oncologist’s office it was all different. One of the nurses he worked closely with was an out lesbian and in that space my personality came flooding back. I asked questions, occasionally sobbed and remembered I was still intelligent despite chemo brain. I was more than a “patient”. I called the oncologist Voldemort. His response was deadpan: “I’m quite proud of that”. Then he evilly chuckled. I wondered if my being myself also made his job more fun.
My ex wasn’t comfortable getting her pap smears. She’d undergone a brutal exam from a homophobic doctor and experienced gender dysphoria, so I knew she’d be likely to skip her appointments. I wanted to let her and then let all my queer friends, who wanted to, have a feel of my 3cm invasive ductal carcinoma. In case they avoided going to the doctors, they’d have an idea what to look for, even though not all breast cancer presents the same way.
I now work with young adults with cancer and have seen how much strength is wrapped up in fully being ourselves and how much disempowerment comes with separating ourselves out. We all deserve to feel safe enough to get our breasts or chests checked out in the first place. If we do have a diagnosis, it’s invaluable to access our personality, identity and humour. But do get checked, I’d love for you not to have an ex yelling at your breast.
For more information, visit livethroughthis.co.uk/bestformychest and listen to Tatum on Not Your Grandma’s Cancer Show at shinecancersupport.podbean.com/e/the-queer-sex-pride-episode
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