AIDS has affected my entire adult life. I’m pretty sure I’ve had HIV since 1986, when I was 18. But I didn’t get tested until 1991, when my boyfriend died. I’m glad for people who pose for posters saying “I refuse to let HIV define who I am.” But there were too many years when I thought I was about to die from HIV for it not to have formed who I’ve become.
When I turned 40, last year, I had a routine mammo-gram. The doctor said I had what was probably a fibroadenoma—a common, benign tumor. I could schedule a biopsy or promise to return in six months to see if it had changed. I didn’t go back, and I don’t want to. The reason I don’t want to is, I’m sure, taboo to say (and obviously irrational): I like the idea of potentially dying of breast cancer. The prospect is profoundly relieving. It makes me feel “normal” that I could die of something I developed rather than something I acquired. It makes me feel feminine, that my sexual identity counts, that the damage would be validated.
I have worked most of my life to make the best of having AIDS, in very matter-of-fact ways. So I was shocked at how the prospect of an alternative demise exacerbates my feelings of contamination and exclusion with HIV, feelings I didn’t know I still have to such a degree. I don’t mean to dismiss the suffering and experiences of the men and women who have died or are living with breast cancer. But I have feelings of affection for my little lima-bean-shaped tumor of light on the sonogram screen. It is, for me, a symbol of redemption.