We are continuing with nonfiction november here at the dictionary project, and I’m so pleased to share with you today the words of Karinya Funsett-Topping. There is so much to appreciate in Karinya’s writing, but I think what I admire most is the way her wit and humor serve to enhance the poignancy and depth of all that she chooses to write about. Please enjoy her piece on lumpy.
lump·y (ˈləmpē), adj. [LUMPIER, LUMPIEST] 1. full of lumps: as, lumpy pudding. 2. covered with lumps; having an uneven surface. 3. rough: said of water. 4. like a lump; heavy; clumsy.
“Losing both of your parents when you were just a child – how was that for you?” –asked, mid pap smear, by a health care professional.
The nurse practitioner with frizzy red hair and a last name that sounds like a first name uses both hands to palpate my chest as I stare at the inspirational images tacked up beside the exam table. There’s a woman lacing up tennis shoes, a bald head, lots of pink ribbons, a race number from a marathon. I look at them and think to myself, as I often do, Do not cry. Do not cry.
“In dense breasts, some lumpiness is to be expected,” she says, fingers still moving in the clockwise motion that all the self-exam guidelines suggest. “Soft lumps are usually fine.”
I nod. I do that uncomfortable half smile one does when there’s not really anything to smile about.
“Think about homemade mashed potatoes,” she says. “If you’re checking yourself and you feel something other than a potato lump – like a hard pea that got mixed in there – then that’s when you should worry. That’s when to call us.”
I saw her a few more times at the university’s campus health center over the course of my undergrad & grad school years. I heard the mashed potato analogy most often, but sometimes she mixed it up: one year I was advised that it was fine if my breasts felt like oatmeal, but I should watch out for the raisins.
I was eight when my mom came home with her breast cancer diagnosis. I might have been seven, or nine: at this point there is no one with a reliable memory left to ask. Whenever it was, she was too young to have her concerns taken seriously, and by the time her illness received a name, it was too late. No longer just dealing with a lump, she tried it all. There was the surgery that removed the offending tissue and replaced it with an implant that caused her almost as much pain as the cancer itself. (“I’m sorry,” I remember her saying as we left the office after her post-surgery check-up. I had stood in the corner as the doctor unwrapped her; green and yellow bruises and stitches, the incision site still fresh and raw. “You probably shouldn’t have seen that.”) There were chemotherapy sessions where we sat in a big room with other sick people and half watched hockey games on the television (we hated hockey) and there was the aftermath at home when the basement was the one safe refuge from the sounds of my mother throwing-up in the sink. There were the radiation treatments and technicians in lead aprons and that big built-into-the-floor scale at the nurses station that both intrigued and terrified me (I was not a small child) with the numbers it displayed. There were special diets that came and went, when eating was an option for her at all (a plum upon waking, then nothing else for at least an hour). There were frequent trips in the family station wagon to the local natural health store, which resulted in an entire kitchen cabinet being devoted to shelf after shelf of vitamins, teas, and shark cartilage capsules (contrary to the pop-medicine wisdom of the early 1990s, sharks do, in fact, get cancer). And finally, there were the doctor-prescribed pills that were burning through our savings account and not doing a damn thing else.
Sometimes thinking about my parents (my father would succumb to cancer too, a few years after my mother did) is like watching a movie without the sound. The images are vivid. The cinematography is great. The actors are beautiful, even when their hair has fallen out and their costumes hang off their skeletal frames. But there’s no sound, and no director’s commentary available to explain the causes or motivations, or to address the why her? question that will linger on, unanswered, forever.
The doctors said my mom’s tumor had been in there, growing, for years before there was a noticeable lump; probably even while she was breastfeeding my younger sister. Some days, I look down at my son as he sleepily nurses and silently plea to my chest, please do not betray me.
I am always watching out for raisins.
Karinya Funsett-Topping has been, at various points, a book reviewer, bookseller, arts desk writer for a newspaper, literary journal editor, and chief bedtime story reader. She graduated magna cum laude with a BA in Creative Writing (fiction and nonfiction) in 2005 and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction in May of 2008, both from the University of Arizona. She now works as an editor and lives in Michigan with her husband and two children. She really isn’t always as serious as this piece makes her seem.