Breast Self-Examination: A Poem

Trigger warning: Sexual abuse.


Slathering Mediterranean Rose bath gel over
my breasts,
preparing for my monthly
hands slipping and sliding as the
sweet-smelling aroma of rose rises
to my nostrils,
taking me away from the present task,
transporting me back to
numerous summer afternoons,
long ago,
alone in my bedroom,
lying on top of my white chenille bedspread
amidst a field of pink and blue
yarn-tufted flowers,
eyes rolled back into my head,
breathing long and steady,
perky nipples perched
atop minute mounds of soft flesh
that in my 13-year old mind
passed for a woman’s breasts,
nipples as hard as
fresh-shucked sweet peas,
the touch of my own hands
lightly pinching
feeling far better than the touch of anyone else or
anyone since,
including that of my Uncle Tony.

Kneading and pressing my breasts now, in a
circular and focused manner,
not lying on a chenille bed spread of flowers
but hidden behind a fabric shower curtain,
haunted by the voice of my dead mother:
“Don’t ever touch yourself,”
she warned,
“there … or there,”
she said, pointing to the places.
“And don’t let anyone else
do it either!”
Not even Uncle Tony?
I wanted to ask her, but
he had also warned me:
“Don’t ever tell.”

Memories of her shame and mine
wash over me as my
fingers search for the
dreaded symptom of
breast cancer.
Looking for a different type of pea,
not a sweet one –
how did the brochure describe it?
like a pearl?
or a marble?
like the one Sis Nadirah found?
that betrayed her and became a hard lump?
Or the one that ended Sister Atiyah’s life?
But not before she watched her husband
die from complications of HIV?

Finished with the monthly ritual,
I roll back my head,
exhaling a long breath,
feeling a different kind of satisfaction:

Alhamdulillah, nothing found this month.

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S. E. Jihad Levine is a Muslim prison chaplain, writer, photographer, jewelry designer, and contributer to the anthology Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and clowder of cats. You can see her photography at Flickr.