Breast cancer is so pervasive that to tell my first-person account of the horror I endured seems self-indulgent and narcissistic. But I’m going to do it anyway, for the sole reason that maybe it will make you rethink those pink hair extensions you were about to glue into your hair to show solidarity with breast cancer patients.
At 37, I was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts. Three weeks after diagnosis, I had a double mastectomy with reconstructive surgery. Three weeks after that, I started an aggressive chemotherapy regimen that lasted six months. Then, I moved on to infusions of a drug called Herceptin every three weeks for the next 10 months.
Over those 16 months, I lost my hair, yes, but I lost a lot more than that. Fighting cancer is very much like climbing a steep mountain, and you wonder how you will scale what appears impossible for such an extensive length of time, with no moments to rest. There are many setbacks one encounters that require the patient to determine how to keep hiking that terrifying path.
Everyone’s setbacks are different. Mine involved extensive pain and the inability to cure it for any meaningful length of time. The wounds interrupted the closeness I craved, preventing me from holding and hugging my daughters close. Six months of aggressive chemotherapy came with intense fatigue, mouth sores, joint and nerve pain, bloody noses and an extensive list of physical maladies that were simply painful and exhausting. It also brought on instantaneous menopause — or “chemopause,” as it is called. I remember lying in bed after returning from my first infusion of the “Red Devil,” Adriamycin, and the hot flashes kept coming in waves one after another. My husband looked at me intensely as I lay in our bed, bald and sweating, and asked me how I was feeling. As one tear slid down my cheek, I responded, “I can feel my ovaries dying.”
The “me” that survived that torturous 16 months is not the same “me” that existed before cancer. I discovered that those dark, deep trenches of despair you read about are truly real. The pain that comes from human fear, loathing and suffering was shocking to me, and it changed me forever. I used to be a person who saw things very clearly, as if the world I had always lived in was black and white. Before cancer, there was only good and evil, good intentions and bad intentions, the right side and the wrong side. After cancer, everything is complex, complicated and contradictory. Cancer took what was left of my naivete. I grew up and realized that evil and darkness truly exist and it can knock on your door at any time. In short, there is no more black and white.
Cancer gives you gray.
So, why pink ribbons, pink bracelets, pink T-shirts, pink wrappers and inspiring smiling photos of women walking together, holding one another’s waists and smiling broadly from ear to ear?
These things remind me of happiness, babies and cotton candy. They do not conjure an image of a grown woman staring down death, swearing that she will kill herself before it kills her. Nor does it remind me of a woman who curses God and shakes her fist in anger that circumstance and chance get preference over her children’s futures. Nor does it remind me of a woman who has endured a rapid shift from a subtly beautiful, soft and vibrant picture of femininity to a bloated, gray-faced and wrinkled alien topped with a slick skull where curly, luscious locks once flowed sensuously down her back.
The pervasiveness of pink ribbons has undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives just by the mere fact that awareness equals money. But I don’t have to like the pink ribbon, and I don’t have to enjoy having my suffering reduced to a trite symbol that reflects nothing of the depth of sorrow that hundreds of thousands of women and their families have been forced to endure.
The Cult of Pink also appears to have lead to a romanticizing of breast cancer as a rite of passage instead of the truth: When you get breast cancer, you are its victim. I know “victim” is an unpopular word in today’s culture, especially among the Cult of Pink followers. But cancer preys on your body. You can fight as hard as you can and still be claimed. The only power you have is access to medical care and good doctors, and sometimes, even then, you lose. But come October, especially here in the United States, where we love our stories of triumph over all odds and Manifest-Destiny-Social-Darwinism-Home-Run-in-the-Bottom-of-the-Ninth success stories, we love to celebrate the cancer patient.
“You’re so strong.”
“You’re a hero.”
“What strength and inspiration you radiate!”
“The courage! The bravery!”
Let me tell you something. In the midst of my chemo treatments, I’d hang up the phone after comforting someone about my illness, and I would go lay down in my shower, turn on the water full blast, and I’d cry. Not a pretty pink ribbon cry. I’m talking sobs. There was nothing pretty, cute or feminine about these episodes. Those were ugly cries, with blaring red, not pink, eyes, and fresh, purple mastectomy scars still so bright that they contrasted dramatically against the shower floor’s gray rock. Those sobs were full of rage and fear. Sometimes, I would do this two or three times a day.
Does that sound brave or strong? If it appears to you that we are brave, strong and courageous, it is because, frankly, we have no choice. What are we going to do? Lie down and give up? What’s the alternative to keeping going when you have two babies clinging to your leg and pulling at your clothes needing to be bathed and asking you to read them a story?
So, I hate October. I think pinkwashing the NFL or running sales promotions designed to earn corporations more money or refurbish their brands all around other people’s pain is sick and twisted. The color of baby blankets, fluffy cotton candy and your favorite Laffy Taffy does not represent the pain breast cancer patients have endured. Make it gray, make it black — or better yet, stop participating in the self-serving Cult of Pink and help make the switch from “Awareness” to “Action.”
How? Instead of buying pretty pink things where the majority of the profits do not go to research, donate directly to organizations that help women deal with the devastating diagnosis of cancer. Or, go see your friend and let her talk about what it’s like to lose her breasts and live with the constant fear of it sneaking up and making her endure it again. If you want to reflect on breast cancer and it’s true toll, visit and give to the SCAR Project. That is the real face of breast cancer and survivorship. Just like the confusing and contradictory cacophony of life, survivorship is ugly, hard, beautiful and joyous all at once.
Oh, and in case you haven’t been reminded enough: Go get your mammogram.