My mother adored autumn. Reminders of her love affair with the seasonal colors are mounted in photo albums and picture frames that still reside in her bedroom in the home we shared. Nothing was more priceless to me in her waning years than her contented smile when I drove her past hillsides and through river canyons exploding with infinite shades of red, orange and gold.
This year, my fourth autumn without Mom, I suddenly noticed that October is no longer reserved for the warm colors she so eagerly anticipated. It’s pink.
This apparently started in 1985 when the American Cancer Society and a major pharmaceutical company teamed up to promote breast cancer screening through mammography. That’s a good thing. Awareness, early detection, prevention. Who could argue with that?
Well, no one. However, the major marketing crusade that has amassed around breast cancer is disconcerting to me. Maybe it’s because I was personally diagnosed two months ago, but I can’t wait until the stores I frequent replace the current plethora of pink products with the greens and reds of premature holiday cheer. In my humble opinion, the common and effective advertising strategy known as branding has transformed breast cancer into something that’s it not.
First, let me assure you that breast cancer is not pink. It’s nothing like the enchanting ribbons that many of us have willingly pinned to our shirts and blouses since they were introduced in 1991. It has no resemblance to the eye-catching pink cleats your favorite football players show off in October games. It’s not a cute slogan on a t-shirt or a reusable shopping bag. It’s not a fanciful character in an animated television commercial.
Breast cancer is a menacing spot on a mammogram that, on an ultrasound screen, turns into a hideous intruder with ugly little tentacles stretching into healthy tissue. It’s a monster that sends you into shock no matter how gently the diagnosis may be communicated. It immediately triggers a deep and life-changing sense of mortality. It’s sends you down a rocky path that you never dreamed … not in a million years … you would have to navigate.
Once the initial shock wears off, breast cancer spawns a new lifestyle. As your calendar fills with medical consultations, tests and surgery, you pause to project how long your accumulated sick leave will last. You look at your bank account to make sure you can meet your health insurance plan’s annual out-of-pocket limit, which you are absolutely sure to reach, probably not just this year but next year as well. You start to fill a big, white, three-ring binder with prior authorization notices, medical bills, pre- and post-surgical instructions, and pathology reports that send you in search of reliable cancer websites for interpretation. There’s a breast cancer manual on your end table and a new file on your computer where you store links to websites, summaries of your research, and questions for your multi-disciplinary team of cancer specialists.
And those are just the impersonal lifestyle changes. The personal impacts are even more distressing.
Your cancer becomes a recurrent topic with family and friends. While you want and need to talk about it, you realize that you can’t let it invade every moment of your own life and the lives of your loved ones. You spend long hours awake at night because something about the cancer constantly interferes, whether it be post-surgical discomfort, fear of pending test results, anxiety about projects you want to complete at home or at work before some aspect of treatment knocks you flat, or simply wondering whether you have any other nasty, little cancer cells taking root somewhere else in your body. Even the newsfeed and pop-up ads on your social media account are constant reminders of your diagnosis because all that internet research you’ve done has turned your smart phone into a tattle-tale.
Last but not least, breast cancer demands a grave internal debate, and sometimes a tough conversation with family, about quality of life. Certainly, every one of us has had at least one hypothetical discussion about what we would or wouldn’t do if faced with a potentially life-ending disease or debilitating injury. Breast cancer makes any theoretical answers seem irrelevant. Suddenly you really do have to decide whether you want the aggressive treatments that sometimes pose greater risks to your body and your health than the cancer. You have to weigh whether you want to improve your odds of surviving 10 or 15 years by a few percentage points in exchange for short-term, or perhaps long-term, misery. Or are you more drawn to the least disruptive traditional therapy coupled with alternative approaches like nutrition and immune therapy?
Your conclusions depend on your cancer pathology, years of data about the experiences of millions of women, and your personal feelings about how you want to spend your life. Trust me, these are tough choices and no one … absolutely no one … can make them for you.
That’s what breast cancer is. It’s not a pink ribbon. It’s not a badge of honor. It’s a horrible diagnosis that changes your life. And, if you don’t have the financial and insurance resources that I am blessed to have, multiply everything I’ve said by the tens of thousands of dollars that cancer costs in terms of lost income and medical expenses.
I hope that the frightening details of my first two months as a member of the breast cancer club will fade over time, but there are moments burned in memory that will be impossible to forget. One of them is a conversation with a sympathetic co-worker who said, “I bet you wish your Mom was here.” I shook my head and responded softly as I turned to walk away, “No, I don’t. This would break her heart.”
No, breast cancer is definitely not pink. Pink is a little girl’s princess costume for trick or treating. Pink is a spray of roses in your wedding bouquet or in a crystal vase on your anniversary. Pink is the shade of your favorite lipstick and nail polish.
Breast cancer is a dark scourge that breaks your mother’s heart, if you are lucky enough to still have her around. It steps on the hearts of everyone else who loves you, too. It disrupts lives. It drains your material resources, alters relationships, and makes you physically sick even if you felt fine before the diagnosis.
Physically sick. That’s an apt description of how the all-consuming October crusade built around breast cancer makes me feel. Contrary to the original, altruistic purpose of the pink ribbons and the designation of a month to raise awareness, breast cancer is now a branded, marketable product. It kills more women than any other cancer, with the exception of lung cancer, but there is almost a fanciful aura around it that makes it seem like the trendy “disease du jour.” It is exploited as a money-maker by opportunists whose concern is less about breast cancer and more about selling their wares to good-hearted consumers. Worst of all, in an effort to capture the imagination of younger audiences, hip advertisers have come up with questionable slogans like “Save the Hooters” and “Save Second Base” that some say inappropriately sexualize the fight.
As a newly diagnosed breast cancer patient, I know I’m at a vulnerable juncture, and I could be over-reacting. Yet, something deep down inside tells me I’m not. The corruption of breast cancer awareness is real. For now, though, all I ask is that the next time you think of breast cancer, think beyond pink. Think ugly. Think devastating and life-changing. Once that is embedded in your mind, think hope. Think cure. That’s truly where the pink should lead us anyway.