Pink

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.     

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18 thoughts on “Pink

  1. So are the boys ready for more videos? If they liked BSG, they’d love B5 (Babylon 5) a five year series that ended a few years ago.

    Becky did a walk for the Susan G. Komen breast cancer fund. It was for you, dearest sister. Also for her youngest daughter whose paternal line has a history of breast cancer. Grandma and great-grandma.

    But I’ll try and find some jokes for ya. And pictures, always pictures.

  2. I’m honored that she did that. And I’m fine with pink-wearing, really! But in the wee hours of the morning, I’m inclined to get sort of irritable and squinty eyed about everything that’s determinedly positive and then I just want to slouch around in black goth-like attire and scowl at people!

  3. You express so well what I felt, and feel, about my breast cancer. I said to my husband, Please don’t say in my obituary that I fought the brave fight. It didn’t feel like that at all. My surgeon took the thing out, the radiation technicians administered the dose, that was it. I was invited to go to a breast cancer survivor group but only attended one meeting. I realized I didn’t want to identify myself as a cancer survivor anymore than I want to identify myself as having survived pneumonia. What is more, at the cancer group the talk became anti-men, as if men had anything to do with my getting cancer. No, like you, gratitude to my surgeon is paramount. When Dr. McDonald admired his own work, “What a nice scar” he said, I felt very tender towards him.

  4. What a beautiful post – you speak so eloquently. I may just have to link to this and not bother posting any more on the month of October! I agree, we have created this narrative where the lines are already written, we learn what we are supposed to say and some people force us to say them. I have serious concerns about the the metaphor cancer as war, too.

    In the end, and what I’ll get to in a post before the month is out, though, is I would take this sort of in-your face, over the top pinkness any day, over the same and secrecy breast cancer used to suffer from. At least now, we are making a statement, grasping hands in some sort of solidarity, and urging researchers further and further towards finding successful treatments.

    I’m wearing pink today, mostly because work requires me to but a little bit because it makes me feel good, too :-).
    Take care, bloglily.
    Courtney

  5. Really nice thoughts. The biggest problem with not wearing pink, in this example, or not shouting loudly about the issue is that people don’t just quietly give…not unless something is brought to their attention by someone who can in some way make the issue important to them. Lets face it, there are a world of problems and in the end it is just like everything else…it pays to advertise! I admire the effort that people go to in order to both promote awareness of and gain funding for breast cancer prevention and treatment but I agree with you in that it isn’t something anyone should feel forced to do.

    I like your ideas of what to give a person (who is suffering from any malady)…one thing we can all do a better job of is trying to stay away from the pat catchphrases we use when we feel inadequate but want to show our support and care to someone fighting an illness and try to personalize our love and support to make it more meaningful and more real.

  6. Oh Nancy, Thank you for telling me that.  It means a great deal to hear what you say. 

     Carl and Courtney, What you say is very helpful. It’s not an either or thing, is it? The truth is that people should speak up about what they care about and demand that things improve. In the long dark teatime of my soul, I suppose I find it difficult to make my way toward my own truth with all the noise about how I am supposed to experience my life. It’s very similar to parenting, actually — there are strong story lines about being a parent and I find myself irritated with those too. In the end, there has to be room for lots of stories.

  7. Dear Lily~

    May beautiful, lustrous pearls grow out of all those irritations. The pearls that are your words inspire me.

    Hard to imagine you slouching around in goth-like black attire, but fun to try, I must admit!

    Take care and dream and live in whatever colors suit you best.

    ~Love and Blessings,
    Selene~

  8. You do express yourself on these fraught issues with such warmth and humanity, dear Bloglily. I had tears in my eyes by the end. I’m not very good at public demonstration.There’s so much suffering I feel incapable of doing anything useful about. So I tend to try and stick with helping out the people I know and love. Believe me, if there was a way that writing about cancer that would cure it, I would be spending my research year on that, gracious me, I would have worked it out by now! As you say, everyone is different and it’s good and healthy to have lots of ways to allow people to express their solidarity and their concern. For myself I would wonder what it would actually achieve (as only my family and the cats would see me). So I need to look for other ways to show my support.

  9. Great post. Brings to mind two recent experiences. One with an academic I had a meeting with who (in what was a natural enough turn in the conversation) told me that her hair had just grown back after treatment for breast cancer. She was annoyed it had grown back grey after wearing a blonde wig for months. She was brisk and funny about it. I said, well, I wouldn’t have noticed it was grey if you hadn’t pointed it out, and we moved on to the next point of business.

    Another woman I work with had to explain to me about having to leave work suddenly on a previous day. It was a side effect of the medication she was taking. What can do? I asked. Give me work to do, she said, laughing. She’s someone who laughs a lot.

    So I perhaps understand a little bit where you’re coming from with this and that maybe work and doing business can go on your list along with orchids and chocolates.

  10. Hi Selene, Yes, it’s true, I’m not really a goth-like person. But I have an inner goth!

    Litlove, I’d forgotten about your research leave — I hope that’s going well. Doing good things is a matter of balance. You do what you can where you can and as long as you give more than you take, don’t you think that’s pretty decent human behavior?

    Helen, Stefanie, Dorothy, Patry — Thank you.

    Mr.dad — What terrific stories. Yes, I think work and doing business make sense. It can’t be all breast, all the time.

  11. I hadn’t got the memo about wearing pink, or I would have. To me, the main value is to raise awareness of the issue– it’s too easy to procrastinate the self-exam, the mammogram, etc. All the reminders this month did spur me to check my Kaiser list of things they want me to do and there it is– Nov 06–mammogram. And shoot– I whine and complain and invite my loved ones to admire me for my courage after I get my teeth cleaned. People will say all kinds of silly and awkward things, trying to express the depth of their good will. I know I do. The one true thing I can think of to say about cancer is that I wish it didn’t happen.
    I’m all in black this morning, in solidarity with your gothness…

  12. I really enjoyed your post about “think pink” phenomenon, as well as many of the comments. Some truly excellent points were made.

    I just want to point out one thing about this “think pink” fundraising phenomenon. What is rarely mentioned in these fundraising organizations’ pleas for money is their hidden agenda or agendas –and their agendas vary widely.

    For instance, Breast Cancer Action concentrates in looking for CAUSES of breast cancer, especially environmental causes. Makes sense to me.

    But how about the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which is the one that most often encourages the buying of pink products? From what I can see, this organization may well have some troubling ties that we might want to know about before donating money to them.

    For instance, an article by Mary Ann Swissler, “The Marketing of Breast Cancer,” claims that the Komen Foundation “helped block a meaningful Patients Bill of Rights for the women it has purported to serve since the group began in 1982,” and that Nancy Brinker, the organization’s founder, is irrevocably tied to conservatism and to George W. Bush, in particular.

    One or both of these points might well bother some of those who donate to Breast Cancer through this organization.

    On my website, http://www.honestmedicine.com, I have posted several very interesting articles that take a skeptical look at both the Cancer and Pharmaceutical Establishments.

    Among them:

    The Mary Ann Swissler article, cited above.

    “The Chemo Concession,” the subtitle of which is “Cancer Docs Profit from Chemotherapy Drugs.”

    And “Breast Cancer and the Hype Over Herceptin.”

    I urge your site visitors to find these articles by going to the links on the left side of my site, and looking under both “CANCER” and “PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES.”

    I hope you find these articles interesting!

    Julia Schopick
    http://www.honestmedicine.typepad.com

  13. Dearest Lily,
    I so understand not wanting to identify yourself as a cancer anything. As a friend of mine said when Claire first got sick, “This is just something that happened to her, not something that defines her.” DG

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