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Mammogram

One thing leads to another. Apparently unrelated things become intimately connected, making me wonder how that happened.

In my forties, my doctor told me my blood pressure was high, and prescribed a diuretic. A couple of years later another doctor switched me to another diuretic and told me to take a potassium supplement. “The medication makes your body flush out potassium along with the sodium,” he said. His nurse told me to eat a banana every day.

Soon another doctor said I should see a cardiologist, who put me on a medication that didn’t flush potassium, but also allowed my sodium level to rise and my ankles to swell. He referred me to a kidney specialist. Soon I was taking spironolactone, a synthetic hormone that blocks aldosterone, another hormone apparently over-produced by my adrenal glands, that signals the kidneys to flush potassium. The specialist wanted me to have surgery to remove the over-active adrenal gland, but I decided to continue with the spironolactone instead.

It seemed to do the job, but it had an unfortunate side effect: my breasts began to swell, along with a putting a layer of fat down my front. The nephrologist told me that the body thinks the spironolactone is estrogen. It’s described as an antiandrogen, and is also used to treat men for conditions such as excessive sexuality and hairiness. Men who decide to become women sometimes take it. I swallowed my pride and kept taking it.

In a few months, however, I began to have pain in my now-swollen breasts. My daughter told me she had experienced such pain at one time, and found that cutting down on her caffeine consumption made it go away. I told this to my doctor, and he referred me to a breast surgeon, “just in case.” Naturally, the surgeon prescribed a mammogram.

The décor in a breast clinic is all flowery pinks and blues. Sitting in the waiting room, I felt like I was in one of those dreams in which one finds oneself naked in a public place. And, as in the dreams, I decided that there was nothing to do but fake nonchalance. Maybe the women sitting there reading their magazines would think I was simply waiting for my wife. I picked up a magazine and put it down again. There was nothing on the rack but women’s magazines. When the nurse called my name, I rushed from the waiting room, both relieved and embarrassed.

Inside, the workers acted as though nothing was unusual. I told myself that other men have had similar conditions, and these were all professionals. I was directed to take off my shirt and stand in front of the machine. The technician adjusted the height of a metal platform and told me to stand closer. As she lowered the top platform down onto my breast, I wanted to protest that “It’s not big enough for that!” but I did as I was told. I couldn’t believe that women have to go through this torture, being squished between two cold plates. It didn’t seem a very reliable way to look for tumors.

Afterward, I had to return to the waiting room to wait for the doctor. Nobody seemed to pay any attention to me, but I could read their minds. They couldn’t even guess why I was in such a place. I imagined a dialog: “It’s this medication I’m taking! I’m not having a sex-change!”

The surgeon was all business. “We didn’t find any tumors. Your guess about caffeine is reasonable. But if you want, we can remove all that tissue for you. It’s a simple procedure.”

I thanked him and said I’d think about it. He’d probably write it up so that Medicare would pay for the surgery. But I never called back to set it up. When I saw my physician again, he didn’t comment.

I don’t go swimming in public anymore, and I avoid wearing snug-fitting knit shirts. It has changed how I think of my body. One time, a long time ago, snuggling with a lover in bed, I marveled at how wonderful a woman’s breast felt in my hand. I told her it was a good thing I didn’t have breasts of my own—I wouldn’t be able to keep my hands off them. The irony of that memory comes to my attention often. Actually, my breasts don’t feel like a woman’s at all. They are not as soft, and the hair growing on them precludes any erotic potential. Also, my chest is large enough that my breasts are not noticeable unless I’m naked. (Another woman friend told me one time that I could wear a sports bra to flatten them, but that would be going too far.) I don’t look at them in the mirror. The rest of my nearly-eighty-year-old body is not what one would call attractive, anyway. I’m past the age where vanity should affect me.

Sometimes I’m tempted to tell people about my experience in the breast clinic. Not many men can say that they’ve had a mammogram. It gives me a point of connection with women, who seem to carry a bigger share of physical disadvantages in life—menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, menopause—than do men. An enlarged prostate doesn’t seem to counteract the benefit throughout life of being able to urinate standing up without having to remove one’s clothing.

May 17, 2007

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