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Third Degree

Susan S. Turner

When I find a lump in my left breast I am stunned. I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but I’m immobilized. It takes me several days before I tell my partner, who has to push me into action. I get the referral from my doctor and schedule a mammogram. The radiology practice fits me into their schedule that same week, but I still have several days to sit with the unknown.

Finally the day of the appointment comes. I wait in the reception area for an hour before the X-ray technician calls my name. As we walk to the exam room, me in my usual long leg braces and aluminum forearm crutches, she is chatty and asks, “How did you get here today?”

“I took the Thruway to Exit 133,” I respond. “The office was easy to find.”

“You mean you drove yourself here?” she exclaims, wide-eyed. “How can you drive?”

Used to these questions, I answer politely about cars with hand controls.

Now she has me strip to the waist and begins to squish my breast onto the mammogram “torture machine,” as I call it.

“Do you live alone?” she asks.

Ignoring her question, I start to point to my breast and say, “I felt a lump right here–“

“Do you work?”

These are the questions that strangers often ask people with physical disabilities. I always wonder if they’re just trying to satisfy their curiosity; or whether they’re trying to assuage their anxiety that it could happen to them. Or are they simply glad that it is I who have the disability, and not they?

Finally the technician comes to the big question: “What happened to you?”

At least it’s not what I sometimes get: “What’s wrong with you?” Then I always want to say, “Nothing is wrong with me. What’s wrong with YOU that you have no manners?”

“I had polio when I was a child,” I answer curtly. “Now may I get dressed?”

She tells me not to get dressed but to sit in the dressing-room waiting area while the radiologist looks at the mammogram and decides on the next step.

Again I wait. I shiver in my paper gown, sitting near the waiting-room table with its glossy magazines.

I am remembering how my mother lived with breast cancer for fourteen years, through two mastectomies and repeated chemotherapy and radiation. She continued to work throughout her chemotherapy.

“I can be nauseous at work as easily as I can be nauseous at home,” she explained.

But she was a bookkeeper and had an office to herself. I am a clinical social worker in private practice and deal with a different client every hour. I’m self-employed and need to work.

Still, my mother did it. I can do it. And maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here–to move outside myself, to move beyond nausea; to focus on the other, not on self.

I remember her short, wavy salt-and-pepper hair. She was more upset when it grew back in pure white than she was when it first began falling out. She did wear a wig while she was waiting for her hair to grow back in; I promise myself that if my very short, mousy brown hair falls out and I need a wig, I will buy a long, luxurious blond one.

Then I chastise myself for thinking the worst. It’s probably only a cyst, and there’s nothing to worry about. I take a deep breath and try to relax, leafing through a People magazine.

In what is only fifteen minutes but feels like an hour, I hear the waiting-room door squeak open. I look up. In walk the X-ray technician, the doctor (his name on his white coat) and a nurse.

Why a nurse? I ask myself. It must be bad news, and they think I might fall apart. Wrapping the paper gown around me more tightly, I hear it rip in the back.

The three of them stride over and look down at me. The young doctor is tall and pale and wears a white lab coat that’s too tight on his bodybuilder shoulders. He holds a file folder; the room is totally quiet except for the tap-tap-tap of his forefinger on the folder. The nurse and technician hover right behind him, almost knocking into the waiting-room table.

“The tech tells me that you had polio,” he says, his tone professorial. “I never met anyone with polio.”

I am speechless. The nurse and technician move in closer.

“Didn’t you get the vaccine?” he continues.

“What? What?” I say. I start to shake, and my breathing grows rapid.

“Didn’t you get the vaccine?” he repeats, more loudly.

Suddenly I realize that I’m not cold anymore. The bright fluorescent ceiling lights seem to burn into me. With an effort, I hold back an angry retort.

“I got it in 1952,” I respond in a staccato voice. “The vaccine came out in 1954.”

Inwardly, as so often before, I feel again like the little girl who was always afraid of the doctor. The little girl who always answered people’s questions, so that they could learn. Once more, I am the child who wanted to please. Now, as then, I want to scream.

I sit up tall, pulling back my shoulders and not caring what happens to the paper gown, and suddenly feel a gust of cool air against my back.

Looking straight into the doctor’s eyes, I speak loudly and firmly.

“Stop with the unnecessary questions. What about my breast?”

“Oh, that,” he responds dismissively. “It looks like nothing to worry about. See you back in six months.”

About the author:

A clinical social worker for thirty-five years, Susan Turner has spent her career working with disenfranchised groups, including people with physical disabilities and those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. Her current practice, in Albuquerque, NM, includes gay, lesbian and transgender clients; she also works with deaf and hard-of-hearing clients and is a consultant to the NM Commission for Deaf and Hard of Hearing. “In my late twenties, I finished college at Sarah Lawrence, where I discovered that I loved writing. An article of mine appeared in the New York Times, and I contributed a chapter to Lesbians at Midlife: The Creative Transition. Recently I’ve begun to focus on memoir writing, hoping to share my story as a woman with a disability who has enjoyed a full life as a social worker, a teacher, a feminist activist, a lover, a mother and a grandmother.”

Story editor:

Diane Guernsey


12 thoughts on “Third Degree”

  1. Bravo, Susan Turner! Your showed great courage and tenacity, in coming forward about the unprofessional treatment you received during what should have been a compassionate and competent breast cancer screening and diagnosis – Eye opening and very well written – I felt so moved that I wrote about your experience on my own blog, A Written Reflection – Thank you for sharing your story.

  2. Susan – A well-written and insightful story. I can understand your anger, but I have a slightly different perspective. I also had polio, class of 1952. I spent nearly six months in a tank respirator, more commonly known as on iron lung. I had a fairly good recovery, but I am once again visibly disabled because of what is commonly called post-polio. When I encounter health professionals like those you describe I usually use it as a teaching moment. I tell them of the many thousands of children and adults who contracted polio before the Salk vaccine. I tell them of the many thousands of us who are still alive. And I tell them that disability doesn’t make a person an oddity. I use the opportunity to inform them, but to also remind them that their professional demeanor is important.

  3. Although in another setting, medical interest in polio may be understandable, in this situation the total disregard for your fear and concerns, given your mother’s history of breast cancer, was absolutely unforgivable. Your restraint and ability NOT to give them a lesson in empathy was remarkable. A beautifully written piece. I am still shaking with anger at that medical team. I am very relieved for you that you can continue to live your full and important life, and continue writing.
    Thank you.

  4. Well written – great details like the tearing paper robe. You have to wonder what the trio of health care providers was thinking. So sorry you had to fight to get even a little patient centered care.

  5. Susan,
    Thank you for this beautifully written and strong story. I am a narrative medicine facilitator( MAin health advocacy from Sarah Lawrence) and have been on the board of a children’s therapeutic hospital for many years and president of the school board that educates these children while they receive their therapies.. I am moving to NM next week and am eager to connect with like minded people who voice their stores of illness and issues with healthcare. I hope we might meet at some point. Best of luck on your memoir.

  6. Thank you! I salute you for taking care of yourself. And thank you for showing us ourselves as those feelings surface–such beautiful writing.

    May many doctors and techs read this, and the ones who need it (who thank God aren’t mine) turn over a new leaf.

    Also, may your future visits be wonderful, considerate, comforting.

  7. Grrrrrrr… this made me SO angry on your behalf! I wanted to punch that idiot of a doctor right on the nose.

    What an incredibly written essay. I wish you all the best.

  8. What a horrible experience for Ms. Turner. I am stunned and appalled at the care she received. There is no excuse for such blatant insensitivity and prurient interest in her disability. I hope Ms. Turner filed a complaint and the technician, nurse, and physician are required to attend training that will prevent another woman with a visible or invisible disability from experiencing such inhumane care. My thoughts and concern are with Ms. Turner.

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