Monday, October 31, 2011

Changing the Way I Think about Pink

(I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, since I was diagnosed and successfully treated for Stage 2 breast cancer earlier this year.  I know it's the last day of the month, but I wanted to get this one posted in October, because…)

October is “Breast Cancer Awareness Month.” According to Wikipedia, “Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) is an annual international health campaign organized by major breast cancer charities every October to increase awareness of the disease and to raise funds for research into its cause, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure. The campaign also offers information and support to those affected by breast cancer. As well as providing a platform for breast cancer charities to raise awareness of their work and of the disease, BCAM is also a prime opportunity to remind women to be breast aware for earlier detection.”

Although my mother died of metastatic breast cancer in 1989, I’d never participated in a “Race for the Cure” event, or purchased anything (yogurt, laundry detergent, microwave meals, etc.) just because it had a pink ribbon on it. All that "pink stuff" seemed a little too commercial for my taste and, after all, what does laundry detergent have to do with breast cancer? (Corporate sponsorships can add dollars for research, awareness and treatment programs - but I didn’t know that until recently.) I had serious misgivings about chemotherapy (having seen two dear friends annihilated by “curing” lung cancer but killing the patient) and I wasn't sure if contributing to “pink” fundraising supported those kinds of treatments.  Actually, this month's issue of Marie Claire magazine includes an article by Lea Goldman entitled "The Big Business of Breast Cancer," which exposes some less trustworthy organizations that have jumped on the "pink" bandwagon - a solid warning to pay attention to where the money goes (good advice for any type of charitable giving).

A few months into my own journey through breast cancer - which started with a routine mammogram, then a sonogram that same day in December, referral to a breast surgeon who did a needle biopsy in January, ordered an MRI in February, performed a lumpectomy in March, followed by daily radiation treatments that spanned 8 weeks into early June, and an "all clear" MRI in August - I found myself defending "the pink stuff" to a friend who had lost several loved ones to cancer and wasn't buying into the all-too-cheery "cancer culture" she sees around us these days. I was beginning to understand a little better why many who'd been through breast cancer - their own, or that of a friend or family member - would want to support and encourage efforts toward awareness and cure... My friend also mentioned "Crazy Sexy Cancer" - a documentary film by cancer survivor Kris Carr, author of several books and a website, which promote a kind of boutique spirituality, raw foods and yoga - little comfort, I would imagine, to anyone with late stage cancer or terrible chemo side effects, but strangely appealing to me in the early months of my own diagnosis and treatment.  I found Carr's saucy blend of humor and realism deeply comforting, like having a good friend who understands exactly what you're going through, at a traumatic time when most of your "normal" friends have no idea what to say or do...

Shortly after I finished a couple of Carr's books, my sister (a nurse-midwife who has participated in several Race for the Cure events, and cared for my mother in the last years of her long battle) recommended Nancy Brinker's Promise Me, the story of how her sister's death inspired her to build the Susan G. Komen foundation, which has raised over $1.5 billion "for the cure" since 1982.  Brinker's book put "pink stuff" into a whole new perspective for me:  30 years ago, if I'd been diagnosed at all, I might have undergone a mastectomy and/or chemotherapy, with all kinds of horrendous (and some irreversible) side effects, none of which was necessary in my case.  Thanks to increased awareness and support for medical advances in breast cancer research and treatment, more than 85% of women diagnosed with breast cancer this year will survive "long-term" (at least 10 years or more).

So, in spite of legimate misgivings about commercialism and not wanting to be superficial about the various complex and painful experiences of others, I still wanted to write this little article to say "thank you" to people like Nancy Brinker and Kris Carr, who have affected my life in some pretty important ways.  These days, when I see a pink ribbon on anything at all, I inwardly thank God all over again for people who've been brave and bold and committed enough to do whatever they could to change my world for the better.   And for the cancer survivors I know - like the receptionist who sent me a pink bouquet with a pink ribbon on behalf of my office, a few days after my last radiation treatment... Some of that "pink stuff" really means a lot to me after all.

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