October, as most are likely aware, is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. My husband Steve has been doing some traveling lately, and he’s sent back a few reports on the awareness efforts he’s encountered on the road. Yesterday all the flight attendants on his trip sported pink ribbons, and the in-flight magazine had a feature story. A couple of weeks ago, he dined at a restaurant that served up pink tortilla chips. Not that travel is required to see plenty of pink during October: I previously noted the Ulta ad that landed in my mailbox, and every time I turn on the television, I find a public service announcement for a tie or scarf I can purchase to help the cause.
Public support and awareness is a good thing, of course. Our local mall recently hosted a “Positively Pink Parade,” raising funds for the Every Woman’s Life program, which provides free mammograms to low-income, uninsured, and underinsured women in our area. Personally, I had the opportunity to attend a retreat for breast cancer survivors sponsored by our local breast care center. It was a powerful experience, both uplifting and draining, physically and emotionally. We interacted with other survivors, created healing art, asked questions of a panel of doctors. It was humbling and inspiring to hear the stories and witness the resilience of the women gathered there, several of whom referred to our shared experience as a kind of sisterhood.
Yet I find myself resisting the proliferation of pink, the idea that with my diagnosis I’ve joined a club of sorts, one that comes ready-made with a club symbol, theme color, purchasable bling, and annual rituals. Maybe all of it takes me uncomfortably back to my visit to the wedding book aisle as a forty-something first-time bride, when I felt like I’d been transported into Barbie- and baby-land, all pink and purple book covers and unrelentingly cutesy fonts. I mean, wedding planning is something grown women do, ideally, not tweens. Similarly, I find much of the imagery of Breast Cancer Awareness Month cloying and cutesifying, when not disturbingly sexualized. I’ve heard this phenomenon referred to as “pink-washing,” and while some women find solace there, many others experience the explosion of pretty tchotchkes and slogans like “Save the ta-tas” as more trivializing than empowering. At times the approach seems almost celebratory.
There’s nothing fun about having breast cancer. At this moment in my journey, I am faced with deciding whether to have only one or both of my breasts surgically removed. I am about to undergo genetic testing to find out if my ovaries might need to follow. There’s nothing cute about contemplating reconstruction options. There’s nothing sexy about the prospect of losing my nipples, all sensation in my breasts. There is not enough pink tulle on the planet to make any of this palatable or easy. I will not need souvenirs manufactured in China: the scars I will come to bear will be pink ribbon reminder enough.
I like pink. I even own a pink tulle skirt—purchased long before my diagnosis. To me, it says “ballerina,” not “breast cancer.” The only statement it makes is a style statement, and I’d like to keep it that way.
This is not a club I would have chosen to join.
Given a choice, I’m guessing most people wouldn’t. (I think of Groucho Marx, who reputedly once sent a wire stating, “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”) I’m not a joiner by nature, never have been, so some of my resistance no doubt stems thence. My husband Steve compared this process to graduate school. Deep bonds are forged there—often through some trial and misery—that remain for a lifetime, but once you graduate, you’re no longer a student, and you move on, leave that identity behind. I am a person who lives where I am. I don’t wax nostalgic about high school, or grad school, or my first job or home. I turn my attention to the people and places of this moment.
I expect my experience with cancer to be similar. For now, a significant part of my identity is “cancer patient,” but (god willing) that will not always be true. And I will, for the rest of my life (god willing), be a cancer survivor. But I am and will also be a writer, a teacher, a wife, an artist, a daughter, a friend. I will always be of a double mind about having had this disease. Cancer is teaching me important lessons about how to pay more attention to what really matters, how to let go of what doesn’t. But if I’m honest, given the option to go back and not have cancer, I can’t say I’d embrace it, even if it meant losing a lesson or two.
Let me say again: public support and awareness are unequivocally good. If a pink parade ensures a woman gets the mammogram that saves her life, that parade is worth every ounce of its pink bling. If 5,000 people buy beaded bracelets at Ulta, and that money goes to ground-breaking research, those bracelets are worth their weight in gold.
Yet I wonder how successful these events are in terms of really educating people. How many people know that most women diagnosed with breast cancer do not have a family history? How many people know that there are a number of different types of breast cancer, and each has different treatment protocols? How many know that, even with those differences, surgery is still almost always the standard bearer? How many people understand that even once you are “cancer-free,” there is a waiting period, a wondering period, when recurrence is a concern, up to 3, 5, even 10 years? Research is advancing rapidly in many ways; doctors can target treatment so much more effectively than even five years ago. Yet the primary cures—mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation—remain pretty darn toxic and brutal. When will that change?
Given the prominence of pink in October, I find it hard to imagine that people aren’t “aware” of breast cancer in a larger sense. It’s other cancers that often get short shrift. My husband is a testicular cancer survivor; a dear friend is a survivor of intestinal cancer; a Facebook friend from high school has just seen her daughter treated for brain cancer. These forms of cancer don’t get the press that breast cancer does, but they cause just as much pain and suffering. All cancers hurt. Maybe we can pull back a bit on the pink and invest in understanding causes and treatments that work while doing as little harm as possible.
So if the bling is not your thing, what can you do? From the front lines, here are my recommendations:
- Ladies (gents, too, especially if you have a family cancer history), do your monthly self-exams. Get your mammogram. Ask if your facility has 3-D mammography. If you are informed (as, by law, you must be in many states) that you have “dense breast tissue,” ask your doctor what your rights are to a follow-up ultrasound, paid for by insurance. If you have a history of family cancer, you might want to ask about genetic testing and/or additional screening: those with established risk factors have access to more options.
- Donate to research—and do your homework first. From my explorations thus far, I recommend Stand Up to Cancer, the American Cancer Society, and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
- Alternately, focus on local initiatives and care centers, or directly support individual families and patients you know. A colleague of mine organized a Meal Train for us during chemotherapy, and it was an absolute godsend. A cozy blanket to cuddle under and Lifesavers to suck on during the saline wash while in the chemo chair will, I can attest, be deeply appreciated.
Cancer sucks. Let’s kick its butt together.