Last October, I wrote about being diagnosed with breast cancer. I confessed that one of cancer’s dirty little secrets is that many of us are not grateful that this disease happened to us and our families. As we head into another October, the month of breast cancer awareness, I want to make another confession: many of us find this month very, very difficult. You’ll find us all smiling during our “special” month, but inside we are really struggling to hold it together. Here are a few reasons why.
We are already very well aware.
It’s been nearly three years since my diagnosis, and life has settled into a new normal. I no longer think about my cancer constantly, but I am still plenty aware of it. I am aware every time I shower and see the two long pink scars. Every time I get dressed and my clothes fit differently. Every morning when I swallow the medication that is hopefully keeping a recurrence at bay, and most nights when I wake up with severe hot flashes from said medication. Every time I am denied life insurance, because I am apparently still too great of a risk to qualify for a policy at age 42. Every time my heart races at an exam or blood draw or follow-up appointment, I am aware.
Most of the time, however, these are moments in an otherwise very fortunate life. I have worked very hard to move forward from those dark days. And I very clearly understand that raising research dollars is something to be grateful for.
But then October arrives, and pinkwashing arrives with it. It’s EVERYWHERE. If I go to the grocery store or to get coffee, I’ll find pink M&Ms, cups, doughnuts, cookies, bagels, toilet paper and cups of yogurt. At Target, there are pink golf balls, frying pans, drill bits, shoes, hats, T-shirts, scarves, pens and Post-It notes. Going to my job downtown means driving past pink billboards, fountains with pink water, posters, banners and buildings lit up pink. Turning on the TV means athletes wearing pink cleats, referees with pink whistles and fans waving pink towels while they wear pink jerseys. Did a My Little Pony explode on my life, or what? For an entire month, breast cancer patients are bombarded with reminders EVERY. SINGLE. MINUTE. It’s a lot to handle, especially because breast cancer patients often struggle with being seen as something more than JUST our cancer.
Breast cancer is not locker room humor.
Plenty of awareness campaigns are tasteful regarding what patients with breast cancer must deal with. And plenty campaigns are not: they make breast cancer a joke, with crude terminology and imagery. As if our struggle is something that is ok to jest about like a pre-teen boy. You’ve seen the slogans – Save the Ta-tas! Squish Your Boobies! Save Second Base! Cop a Feel So Cancer Can’t Steal! Save a Life, Grope Your Wife! This year, I was invited to a breast cancer “awareness” 5k race, sponsored by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, called – wait for it – Treasure Chests. Seriously.
Some may argue that any awareness is helpful, but I’m puzzled as to why women with breast cancer have to forfeit their dignity for this purpose. No other disease gets reduced to this level of juvenile humor. I don’t ever hear slang terms thrown around in prostate cancer awareness campaigns, nor do I hear poop jokes regarding colon cancer awareness. I didn’t have boobie cancer, I had breast cancer. I understand that I have to maintain some sense of humor about things, but I know I speak for many breast cancer patients when I ask you to please refer to our former body parts with respect and maturity.
The guilt. So. Much. Guilt.
Guilt that I’m not more grateful for so many people who are honestly trying to do a good thing. Where would I be without the kindness of others during my illness?
Guilt that I got a kind of cancer that gets this degree of attention. What about all the other kinds of cancer? For instance, do you even know what color ribbon represents lung cancer? Why is my cancer more important than everyone else’s kind? Guilt that my cancer gets an entire MONTH of awareness. Some diseases as common and devastating as Alzheimer’s get one day of attention, if that. My heart breaks.
Guilt that I got the kind of cancer that will most likely have a happy ending. I am well aware that a quarter of breast cancer patients will not be cured, and many other cancers are not curable either. I pray for these patients, and I also pray that I will someday understand all this.
I wonder about all of these things on a daily basis, but again, usually in moments… until October, when I am given the opportunity to think about them EVERY. SINGLE. TIME I see something slathered in pink.
If you are participating in any kind of breast cancer awareness campaign this year, thank you. I know in my heart that your efforts are coming from a good place. And I am truly so grateful for your support. But October is hard, so please forgive me if I keep my head down and hope that November 1 comes quickly.