There is no good time to receive a breast (or any) cancer diagnosis, but the worst time is during Breast Cancer Awareness month. That’s what happened to me, and I was reminded of this when I started to hear all the promos on the morning televisions shows recently (late September) for the many “pink” and “pink power” events they have planned for this October. The Today Show will be treating some “lucky survivor” to an ambush makeover….ABC News is “Going Pink”… and companies will show their good will with a slew of promotions, such as Ford’s “Warrior in Pink” giveaway.
First, the disclaimer: Yes, I am grateful as someone who has had cancer that my particular brand gets all this attention, and I feel for all the people with every other kind of cancer around which there is much more silence, much less media attention — which in turn, must mean much less support for the bigger issues of cures or of aiding those who cannot afford testing and treatment. I am grateful to the activists who began to broaden the conversation around breast cancer and push the medical and research agenda. I was a part of that movement long before my mother or I was diagnosed, writing about breast cancer for national women’s magazines and working with the New York organizers for the Revlon Run/Walk for women’s cancers in the late 1990s.
Breast cancer organizations and programs all do important work, and every woman diagnosed in recent years has benefited from their efforts. But right now, as every organization and media outlet gears up to “celebrate” or participate in breast cancer awareness month, thousands of women are hearing the word “breast cancer” in the same sentence as their name for the very first time, just as I did two years ago.
Before my diagnosis, I would have thought that Breast Cancer Awareness month would be a comfort to the newly diagnosed. I cannot speak for everyone, but for me it most definitely was not. Yes, again, I am grateful for the activism; but the conversation around Breast Cancer Awareness month is singular – it is about surviving, triumphing, and beating/curing cancer. It is not about coping with or navigating cancer’s emotional impact. So right now, some woman just like I was is in shock. She is numb; she has had her world transformed from a sense of surety to a sense of complete uncertainty. Her body has betrayed her. In an instant, she has felt isolated emotionally and psychologically from everything she thought she knew and especially from the people she loves, who cannot be in her shoes, cannot relate to her journey, unless they, of course, have had cancer, too.
The missing part of the conversation during this month is exactly that trauma we all feel – every person who has ever had any form of cancer – when we first hear the word, and in the months or years after, as we try to find our way back to some so-called “new normal.” (Another term I hate because, truly, there is no normal, just an ever evolving picture of new experiences that continue to shape our identities.) When I was diagnosed, I could not escape this singular discourse around breast cancer. I would turn on the television to zone out and have a few moments to not think about my cancer and what it all meant, and yes, whether I was going to die. Yet everywhere I looked was joyful pink. Even football players were wearing pink bandanas during games in solidarity. Thank you, I am grateful, but no one was talking about the immense weight of that word on one’s soul, one’s psyche, one’s emotional core.
All you will hear for the next 30 days is stories of survivors, stories about research, stories about beating this disease. You will not hear about why one in eight women get cancer, about the causes of cancer, because that requires thinking about the chemicals in our foods, personal hygiene products, or in the water we drink that may have been contaminated by toxic dumping from corporations that have never been held accountable. And even if we can make peace with not having the conversation about causes, what is troubling is that we will also not hear a single word about the psychological trauma of cancer or that in many ways, it does more damage than the physical tumors themselves. Before cancer, I leaped out of bed in anticipation of each new day. After cancer, I simply opened my eyes. Still.
I am grateful for Breast Cancer Awareness month, the money it raises, the attention it brings, but I am frustrated by all the happy, joyful stories that seem to drown out tales of this difficult, lonely journey – or that, sadly, everyone does not have a happy ending. Right now, some woman is feeling what I felt, and I write this to tell her she is not alone. We have all felt what she is feeling. I still struggle with no definitive answer when asked what brings me joy – something my “before self” knew all too well. I still fight not to let cancer define me, and I have spoken with and heard from countless women who have told me how they, too, struggle.
Cancer invades your body, and they can cut it out, radiate it, chemo-it, and give you medication to fight it returning. But cancer also invades your psyche in ways that continue long after treatment ends, and they can’t do much for that unless we start talking about it. That’s the conversation I’d like to see the media, the breast cancer organizations, someone address publicly this month. The emotional side effects of cancer for many of us are far worse than the disease or treatment because those side effects linger far longer. That’s the awareness I’d like to bring to Breast Cancer Awareness month.