October is here!
I’m thinking, pumpkin spice lattes! I’m thinking, colder (or, here in Texas, cooler) weather! I’m thinking, Halloween!
And then I walk past a display of pink coffee mugs and water bottles in the grocery store and I’m thinking: Fuck. . . it’s breast cancer awareness month.
Amid the fun fall colors is an onslaught of pink. Pink t-shirts, pink shoes, pink water bottles.
Pink, pink, pink, pink.
I used to like pink. Breast cancer awareness month used to be something that happened in the background of my fall colored Octobers. I used to look at pink ribbons and feel a brief stab of pity for the sad sacks that had breast cancer, but hey, at least they got a pretty ribbon!
I did the Susan G. Komen 5k in 2003 for fun. It was the first race I ever ran. On the back of all the race numbers there was a section that read, “running in support of” or “running in memory of”.
Twelve years later and six months out of cancer treatment, it’s now all too easy to see my children writing my name under the second one.
I did the race again a few years ago in memory of my friend Patti. And, of course, I did it last year in honor of myself.
Each time I saw survivors held up like heroes. Like October was a celebration. I saw slogans on homemade signs saying ‘We will beat this!’ and ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’ There was a definite pep rally vibe in the air. The only thing missing was Queen’s We Will Rock You playing in the background.
This October is different. This year, I’m one of the survivors.
Now that I’ve seen the other side of breast cancer, seen beyond the pink ribbon curtain, I don’t feel triumphant and I don’t feel like a hero.
I’m just one more scared woman who emerged from breast cancer treatment like a shaky fawn taking its first steps. I’m not trying to be inspirational. The only thing I’m trying to do is go back to normal while being desperately aware I have to find a new normal.
Breast cancer awareness month makes people feel good, like they’re on top of things. It makes people believe that if they eat right and exercise and not smoke and know their family history and perform self breast exams and have regular mammograms that cancer won’t happen. Not to them.
Here’s some awareness for you: I did all of those things and I got it anyway.
There is one glaring omission from breast cancer awareness month. It skips over the ‘sometimes shit just happens’ cause of cancer. This cause is hard to accept, I know. Believe me, I know.
October’s pink ribbons almost make breast cancer sexy.
Folks, breast cancer is not sexy.
The pretty pink ribbons adorning every available surface resemble exactly nothing of my experience with cancer. But pretty pink ribbons sell better than bald heads and mastectomy scars.
Please don’t misunderstand. I appreciate that the pink ribbons are a show of support. I respect that your wife or mother or daughter or husband or father or son (yes, men can get breast cancer, too) is either battling breast cancer or ‘lost the fight’, as the saying goes.
I no longer believe that the amount of fight in a person is the determining factor if they’ll live or die. My friend Patti was the fightiest person I knew. It killed her and, so far, has spared me. So excuse me if I don’t want to participate in the festival of pink ribbons.
A friend of mine served in the military. From the little I’ve heard him discuss, he was in the thick of some pretty nasty shit. Now he’s adjusting to a world in which he is not at war.
I asked him once the best way to say ‘thank you’ to a member of the armed services. His response surprised me. And yet, it was familiar, too.
He said he doesn’t understand being thanked. He said, “What are they thanking me for? For not dying? For watching my friends die?” He doesn’t know what to say back so he just accepts the ‘thank you’ and keeps moving on the best he knows how.
That’s how I feel when someone calls me a hero or tells me I’m inspirational. I haven’t done anything I wouldn’t normally do except not die. I don’t see how that makes me a hero. Like my veteran friend, I’m just relearning to put one foot in front of the other.
Because the battle isn’t over once treatment ends.
I still have nightmares and anxiety attacks at night. Sometimes I dream treatment has started over and I have no hair. These are the good nights because I feel a surge of relief upon waking and finding hair on my head. These are the nights when it’s easy to remind myself I survived.
The bad nights are when I dream about having long hair, like none of it ever happened. I wake to a crushing depression when my hand discovers my hair is still very short and I remember how it got that way. These are the nights I lie awake wondering how long I will live.
I still live with frequent daily hot flashes from the Tamoxifen. I still panic every time I get a headache thinking the cancer is back and this time it’s in my brain.
I still envision how badly I’ll hurt my loved ones after I’ve died. And (I hate this the most), I still pick out songs for my funeral and quotes for my gravestone, because, deep down, I still don’t believe I’ll live to see forty.
I still try to prepare for the worst even though I know no preparation will ever be adequate. I live every day feeling my own mortality wrapped around my shoulders like a blanket.
Dealing with all that and then BAM! Pink ribbons everywhere.
It’s too much.
Perhaps it’s just too soon, the wound too fresh. Maybe someday I’ll want to participate in all the pink October has to offer. Right now, October is a thirty one day reminder of a long march through hell.
My plea: Yes, it’s breast cancer awareness month but be please be conscious of how the word ‘cancer’ makes survivors feel. To us, to me, it’s not a celebration. We feel each story of loss to cancer, breast or otherwise, personally and deeply.
I vote to let October go back to being about pumpkin spice everything and planning Halloween costumes.