I didn’t actually know until the wee hours of the morning that today is wear pink for breast cancer day. My first thought when I heard about it is that I like displays of solidarity. I loved it when people wore white for the immigration marches. Here in San Francisco, the march was enormous and you could tell from the sea of white that the people marching were as one in what they had to say. A march makes sense to me — a show of numbers is an effective way to say something that needs to be said, something the government isn’t hearing. A march can say, a lot of us don’t like this war. Or gay people are people too and deserve to be treated like everyone else. Or we aren’t going to sit in the back of the bus anymore.
My second thought, though, was that breast cancer is different. It’s not like the government has said women with breast cancer can’t get married or have to be educated in separate but equal schools. And all areas having to do with our health as a people aren’t adequately funded — not just breast cancer.
On a personal level, I’m a little embarrassed to think that anyone I know would wear a pink t-shirt because they think I need them to do that. Really, I don’t need that. I already know my loved ones care about me. I can’t imagine anyone not caring about someone who’s been told they’re ill. Actually, I can, but then that person could not be convinced to wear a pink t-shirt anyway. In truth, the pink t-shirt makes me feel a bit like an abstraction and a cause. And that brings me to my point: the pink-wearing day is part of a narrative about illness that doesn’t match my own experience.
Although no one gives you a script when you learn you have cancer you can’t avoid learning your lines. They’re spoken in unison by so many people of good will, people who want to help you, that you find yourself saying them too. When you are diagnosed, you’re told, you are a fighter. And after your treatment, they say, you are a survivor. After you die, the obituary says, she carried on a brave struggle, but in the end she lost. And so it seems my job is to fight and struggle and my reward is that I will be a survivor. In light of this narrative, it makes sense that people wear a ribbon or a certain color to cheer you on: that’s what we do in this culture for anyone engaged in a contest — whether it’s an athletic contest or a war or cancer.
This may be inspiring and helpful for many people. I just want to say that for me — in my own experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer — I do not find this narrative helpful or accurate.
To begin with helpful, I’d say that if someone wants to be helpful to women with breast cancer, I think they should just quietly give money or time to an organization that does cancer research or helps people who don’t have health insurance. And they should remember that there are lots of cancers, lots of sick people, lots of problems. And every time we attend to one loudly, we’re drowning out the others. So give to lots of good organizations. Don’t talk too much about it. And if you know a woman with breast cancer, bring her a cheesecake, or a good book, or some nice soap, Battlestar Galactica videos, an orchid, soup, pesto, flowers, chocolate. Organize a carpool in which she only has to drive one out of the ten shifts. Bring her something frivolous. Give her sexy underwear. Tell her a joke. Flirt with her. She knows why you’re doing that and it’ll make her happy and feel supported. If she’s me, anyway. That’s all helpful. (And don’t forget, if she has a family to be nice to them. They’re not feeling so great right now either.)
This is as close as I can come to accurate: The cancer surgery I experienced was not a fight. It was a series of careful and elegant incisions and the deft removal of cancerous pieces of tissue. Dr. Hwang did that. I slept through the whole thing.
Nor can I call my encounter with anxiety, and sadness and anger a fight. There isn’t an enemy here. Certainly, my body is not an enemy. It has done what it was fated to do. The anxiety, sadness and normal thoughts about mortality I’ve experienced are not an enemy. And if I fight them as though they are, I suspect it will be the way it is when someone falls into one of those traps where the more you struggle the worse it gets. The best I can do, really, is to watch those emotions gather, like storm clouds. And I suppose then you have to let them wash over you. You stand out there in the rain, and you get wet, and you feel it and you’re a complete pain in the ass for other people to be around because you’re sad, or worried or angry or so distracted you can’t be relied on to feed youself, much less your family. And you and they will just have to wait it out.
As you do, maybe you will see something about yourself or the way life works that you didn’t see before and maybe that will help you feel better. Maybe you never will feel the same sense of security you felt before you knew you had cancer. No one said you were entitled to have everything about your life seem inviolate or that all things could be made better. But I’m pretty sure if I don’t do what I’ve described, I’d just bury all the things I’ve been feeling and I’d be a lot angrier and more anxious and a way huger pain than I already am.
So now you know, I’m not a fighter or a survivor. There’s no need to wear pink for me. But if someone you know would be honored or heartened by it, then I salute your decision. And if it means you’ve put pressure on people in our government to give money to cancer research, then I’m really all for that. If someone I knew felt better seeing me in pink, I’d be dressed in pink from head to toe. Because that’s something else that I’ve learned. No two of us are alike in the way we experience the world. And if we want to understand ourselves and other people, we have to listen and watch and be quiet for a while before we act. That’s really all I want from the people who love me and want to help me and that’s what I hope I can give to the people who need that from me.