leah mc­fall

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No­body chooses to spend a sunny Tues­day af­ter­noon with each of one’s norks com­pressed, be­ing gen­tly ir­ra­di­ated.

“Sorry about this,” she says, nudg­ing my arm over my head. “We just need to get the breast up and away from the ribcage.” For­give me, dar­lings, but a mam­mo­gram re­ally was the high­light of my week. It’s not what I’d call a top five ex­pe­ri­ence; I mean, no­body chooses to spend a sunny Tues­day af­ter­noon with each of one’s norks com­pressed be­tween a base­plate and a top-plate, one knee bent and eyes to the wall, be­ing gen­tly ir­ra­di­ated by a kindly tech­nol­o­gist. But when you turn 45, there you are. You ac­cept it as one of those things your younger self couldn’t have imag­ined would ever hap­pen to you, like preg­nancy haem­or­rhoids, or maybe di­vorce.

I ar­rived late, as I of­ten do. “I’m sorry,” I puffed to the re­cep­tion staff, “I was due for a breast scan five min­utes ago.”

“Oh dear,” said the re­cep­tion­ist clos­est to me. “They’ll only have time to do one.” I paused, then tit­tered along with her.

“Well,” I in­di­cated my mod­est ch­est, “it’s re­ally not go­ing to take long.”

How wrong I was. Any­thing more than a hand­ful would have been eas­ier to get be­tween the plates but un­for­tu­nately, I’ve al­ways had less. Get­ting my girls to lie flat wasn’t easy – they had to be kneaded into place, like small balls of pizza dough.

As I gazed at the wall art (sheep, in a field) it struck me that as a com­puter up­loaded a dig­i­tal im­pres­sion of my breasts, mil­lions of view­ers were try­ing not to gaze at a much more fa­mous pair. At that mo­ment, porn star Stormy Daniels was ex­plain­ing to the world how, in the lead-up to the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Don­ald Trump’s le­gal team had in­tim­i­dated her into stay­ing quiet about her sex­ual en­counter with him, years be­fore. The in­ter­view was about money, not sex, so Daniels wore a but­toned-up co­ral shirt over a body that un­til now has made her a liv­ing. A body which may yet un­ravel a pres­i­dency.

Daniels’ in­ter­view gave her body a voice. But look­ing at my mam­mo­gram im­ages – teardrops of soft tis­sue, mag­ni­fied into a constellation of sil­ver dots – made me lose mine.

It’s weird to look at your own in­sides on an ul­tra­sound. I sup­pose when some peo­ple are shown a den­tal X-ray (of their own kiss­ing, laugh­ing mouth), they might feel re­lieved to see their whole teeth, all the way down to the root, like a grin­ning row of fence ba­tons. It might re­as­sure them; make them think: “Oh, right! My skull is un­der there!” But I feel my­self di­vide in two.

My think­ing brain goes well, of course! I have cells, and there they are! But emo­tion­ally, I’m in shock. I re­mem­ber my am­nio­cen­te­sis – agree­ing to it, be­ing preg­nant at 38 with our first baby, hav­ing weighed the risks and ben­e­fits; hold­ing my part­ner’s hand and stay­ing still for the doc­tor. But when the nee­dle went in, a tear slid down my cheek.

Th­ese close en­coun­ters with our bod­ies – med­i­cal en­coun­ters, which are never on our terms – are what we bear when we live in a so­ci­ety that val­ues our in­di­vid­ual lives. Say­ing “I hate hos­pi­tals” might be true but it’s lazy, too. Hos­pi­tals need to im­prove, in myr­iad ways – we’ve all had bad ex­pe­ri­ences, or heard of them – but I like to find snatches of hu­man­ity in th­ese scans and screens, th­ese mo­ments where your soul and per­son­al­ity, while in­ter­est­ing, aren’t as sig­nif­i­cant as the cells, stars, and con­trails whirling and fad­ing in­side your body.

I’m P keha, with­out re­li­gion, so this comes more eas­ily to me.

Cul­tur­ally, spir­i­tu­ally, hos­pi­tals don’t of­fend me or rub out my iden­tity in ways that can deeply wound or in­tim­i­date many peo­ple. But ac­cept­ing too much med­i­cal in­for­ma­tion, as I now seem to have to do in my 40s, is also a con­scious act of will, and grace, even for me. Some­how, I must find my peace with it.

This is how I do it. I talk; I talk like a two-stroke. At one point, we break off the mam­mo­gram to talk about the mer­its of hot yoga. The tech­ni­cian bends eas­ily at the waist and shows me the Po­lar Bear, the Down­ward-Fac­ing Dog, and the Sun Sa­lu­ta­tion.

I don’t know who feels more ridicu­lous – me, hug­ging an ex­pen­sive over­head pro­jec­tor with my top off and my nip­ples on show, puck­ered by their own em­bar­rass­ment or the tech­ni­cian, her head up­side down and her palm in the sky.

She was so nice. To think her job is to set­tle dozens of ner­vous women a day. I’ll think of her kind­ness when I re­mem­ber the mam­mo­gram and, what­ever the re­sults, I know the sun will still come up, the dogs will face down and my cells will di­vide, over and over, un­til they don’t.

“At one point, we break off the mam­mo­gram to talk about hot yoga. The tech­ni­cian bends and shows me the Po­lar Bear.”

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