art by Kirsten Kramer

Taking my body back from the health system

I have never felt more dehumanized in my life than I have at the hospital. 

I was 10 years old when I first felt objectified by another human being. My uncle was showing off his new jet ski one summer when we were vacationing down in the Carolinas. 

I was so much heavier than my cousin, who was the same age, he said to the family after returning from our trip gliding across the water. He could tell, he explained, because of how I felt with my arms wrapped around his midsection.

Looking back, I wonder if my uncle weren’t a bit too preoccupied with my body tugging on his, but that’s not how I took it at the time. I took it how it was intended: I was too big.

So, I stopped eating. As I withered away during puberty, I learned to see my physical form as something to be commented on and occasionally grabbed, but mostly, contained, controlled. 

Oddly enough, it has taken me more than two decades to unlearn that behavior, discovering the love I have for my inside and outside at a time when their very nature seems most precarious. 

You see, for the past two years, I have been undergoing extensive treatment for breast cancer. I am a year in remission now but am still physically a mess. And, my experience cycling through the health care system makes what happened with my uncle 23 years ago seem innocent. 

For I have never felt more dehumanized in my life than I have at the hospital. 

And, I think perhaps because I was in the prime of my life, perhaps because I am still regularly objectified by men, that I recognized how the medical industry was slowly changing me from a woman to a test subject. The fundamental outrage I felt when I had that recognition is what drove me to take my body back. 

I’m not entirely sure what the consequence will be from this wresting of some control over myself from the health system and, by extension, also men. Right now, I just know it makes me see everything differently.

I knew for the first time that I had changed on Thursday when I went to the Tallahassee, Florida imaging clinic for my first scans since entering remission about a year ago. 

As usual, I was told to take off most of my clothes, my wedding band, my glasses, my bracelet, my watch. But unlike in the past, I noticed this time how vulnerable I felt without these special things that have become so intertwined with my identity. I longed for them as soon as I locked one among many gray lockers on the radiology floor of the center. 

Instead of afraid, as I have in the past at hospitals, I felt resentful as I answered questions aloud that I had already answered on a sheet of paper. I took note of how a clinician left me in the dark when she left the room during my mammogram to go find a doctor. 

Knowing from experience that finding a doctor mid mammogram is generally a bad sign, I felt my way over to a bench in the corner and took a seat, aware the only things that belonged to me in the room were the underwear and thin sweatpants I was wearing. 

Because of coronavirus precautions, not even my husband could come with me.  

“We need a few more of the right breast,” the clinician said upon returning, without explanation.

We started again. I wedged my shoulder into the machine so that my right breast could be snapped again with a flash. The clinician then left me in the dark again. 

As I sat in the corner, I thought about nothing, perhaps like other animals right before they are to be slaughtered. A few minutes later, the clinician came back. 

“She found a nodule in your right breast,” she said, aware that I had just had cancer in my left. “We want to do an ultrasound.”

I said nothing as I placed my head into my hands and felt hot tears rush onto them. I knew it, I thought to myself, I knew I would get cancer again. It was like she had mentioned a truth that was there all along. 

“I know you’ve been through a lot,” the clinician said. We were still in the dark. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” I said, at a loss. What could she even do if I said I were not all right? “I have to go get my MRI. So, you’ll have to call downstairs.”

I preferred to get the ultrasound first because it would give me more immediate information about the new nodule, but because of scheduling issues, I went to a different floor to get the MRI. That meant that I had to dress again, check in again, fill out more paperwork, get naked again, receive a different robe and perform a different test. All of those steps felt infinitely long because they stood in between me and a conclusion about more cancer.

My breasts dangled freely as I lay face down in the MRI machine, making them readily available for more photography. The device grunted and moaned in my ears as it worked. I tried to focus on my breath.

I am done being naked and afraid, I thought. It’s not helping me, it’s helping them, having me held captive, stripped of my dignity and at their mercy. The realization washed over me, leaving the same metal taste in my mouth as the saline that was just flushed through my veins. 

Half an hour later, the clinician helped me to get on all fours to stabilize, so that she could remove my IV and then tell me to get dressed and go back upstairs and check in and possibly pay again to get naked again and be groped again by more medical equipment.

I did as I was told. I ended up in another room with another clinician who was smearing a cold gel on my right breast. My nipple flinched as her instrument slid over it.

When she was done, she gave me a towel and told me to wipe off. I felt like a prostitute cleaning up after a client. I then rolled into the fetal position, again in the dark, on my cot.

“The ultrasound was normal,” the clinician said as she opened the door. I could throw my used towel away in a designated garbage bin on my way out, she said. 

“But what happened with the nodule in my right breast?” I asked.

“It looks like it was just overlapping tissue,” the clinician said.

I left the room quickly and beelined for my locker, making sure to put everything on before stepping out into the hall, desperately trying to reassemble my personhood.

As I left, I passed a middle-aged woman in her issued gown, asking an employee in a little girl’s voice whether she could use the restroom. 

I wanted to scream at her: Don’t give up your rights so easily!

But really, it wasn’t her fault; it was the health system’s, for making even a trip to the bathroom feel like a privilege.  

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This essay first appeared in Jacob Perry’s new and very cool newsletter yesterday.

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