October is finally here! All our houseplants are back inside, so if you visit us be careful where you walk so you don’t get stabbed by a cactus needle.
It has been a while since I whined about cancer, so let’s chat about the elephant in the room. Pinktober, aka Breast Cancer Awareness Month, those 31 days of hell where I am traumatized by Pepto Bismol-colored ribbons, socks, shirts, bumper stickers, lapel pins, and pocket squares.
No need to be alarmed–I am joking for the most part. As a survivor who is five months away from reaching the “5 Years a Survivor” milestone on February 10, I am melancholy, yet determined to keep bringing attention to the ongoing psychological plight some cancer survivors and caregivers face, which include anxiety, depression, fear, and even post-traumatic stress.
Last week I was honored to meet with some of the doctoral students at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP). Health Psychology is one of the graduate courses in the Center for Oncology Psychology Excellence (COPE) track at GSPP, and it is being taught this quarter by dear friend and COPE Director, Dr. Nicole Taylor-Irwin.
Guess what? The Health Psych class is completely full—like jam-packed full! We’re talking there are 30 students (originally 32) taking Health Psych in a school where the average class size is much, much smaller than 30.
Why such an interest in how and why the brain plays a significant role in our physical health? I think it’s because the brain IS part of the body after all, and unlike a body wound that heals and possibly leaves a physical scar, a traumatic health experience like cancer can leave a permanent emotional scar.
Those emotional scars caused by cancer are the reason I came up with this:
“Cancer is never invited, and cancer never leaves”™
Enough about how I feel, but what do other survivors think? I polled several women friends who are breast cancer survivors, asking them to respond to two questions:
Their stories! I promised to keep their identities anonymous, but my heart is warmed to share some of their most memorable responses:
“I initially feel a sense of pride and accomplishment that I am a survivor. It reminds me to keep the priorities in my life at the forefront and to focus on what’s important as we don’t always know how much time we have left. That being said, I also feel a sense of guilt sometimes that Breast Cancer gets more focus than other types of cancer. In the past, Breast Cancer Awareness Month has not led to significantly more anxiety or distress as I think it is important for me to remember the ways in which it impacted my life and family. However, I just had my first child and now the mention of breast cancer impacts me differently. Now when I think of it, I wonder what it would be like if I got sick again and had to leave my child. Overall, Breast Cancer Awareness month reminds me that I am a strong woman who can deal with adversity and stress!”
“I am a 15-year survivor from the first incidence and an 11-year survivor from the second incidence, a recurrence in the same breast, same pathology.
I am grateful for Breast Cancer Awareness Month because I believe it attracts dollars for research and advancement of the cure. I had a moving experience one year participating in a parade in which I marched with a fellow survivor–who was six years old. There is something comforting about the “fellowship” of survivors. On the other hand, I don’t want Survivor to be my ‘brand.’
And, yes, it is also hard. I was diagnosed with a recurrence in October during the Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But somehow it inspired the “Fight Back” in me and reminded me I am not alone.”
“I do appreciate the worldwide acknowledgement, but sometimes wish it were a terrible nightmare.”
October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month is important. We are each responsible for our reactions to anything in life and how we choose to see something. I say, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water because without awareness, many of us would not have known to get suspicious or concerning lumps or bumps in our breasts checked out. Without the declaration of the Breast Cancer Awareness Month of October, the crusades for raising money for research might not have ever happened, genetic testing might not have come to the forefront as it is today, and because of this awareness month, women feel less lonely as they face the many challenges of breast cancer.
It does not warm my heart that many are still fired from jobs when it’s discovered they have breast cancer or overlooked for promotions or career advancements or that many mothers have to choose between buying their prescriptions or buying food for their families.
Once diagnosed, it’s not a month of awareness, it’s 365 days of awareness every single year.”
“While I am grateful for the awareness and advocacy in October for women to get checked and do self-exams, it is the way in which business and consumerism has taken over the month that frustrates me.
In October a couple of years back, I was in Safeway and walked by a display of pink breast cancer ribbon cakes, cupcakes and cookies. I thought to myself, ‘Breast cancer itself is nothing to celebrate. What are these about?’ I thought for sure that Safeway would donate profits to a cause if folks purchased one of these desserts. I couldn’t find a sign indicating this. I went to store management and was informed that the sales weren’t linked to any charity. I found this appalling. I was very angry that day. I shared that story on social media.
So, I guess I have a problem with the commercialization of something that is so hard for so many. Survivorship should be celebrated, money should be raised for research, but I don’t need an artificial cake full of chemicals and dye with a pink breast cancer ribbon on it to do that. Shame on the companies that profit from others’ pain. This is happening all over the county with so many companies. A year later I saw a drink on the menu at BJs to ‘pink your drink.’ Again no proceeds donated to charity, so why does this company do it? Is it selfish of me? Should I be grateful they are creating space for those who have been affected by this disease to be thought of and celebrated? Does adding pink food dye to a drink do that? Perhaps it inspires conversation? And that is good. To discuss advocacy and awareness.
For me, I don’t wear my survivorship on my sleeve by wearing pink and donning myself in ribbons or drinking or eating pink inspired treats in October. I do, however, speak up more so in October about self-exams and mammograms. I share my story about how I waited nine months before I got my lump checked that I had known about and ignored. I share the documentary I made to help inspire other young survivors to find joy through their journey through cancer. I share how grateful I am to be here today because that is not the case for so many who wait and don’t act on minor symptoms or ignore lumps thinking cancer can’t happen to them. Or to those who had no signs of the disease in the first place until it was too late…”
My sincere thanks to all of you who participated in the poll. By the way, is it me, or do some of the longer-term survivors have differing—call it “evolving” views—from more-recent survivors? Is it wisdom? Maturity? Healing?
I’m not here to tell you what to think or how to act. I am here as a storyteller, a conduit for the humorous, the infuriating, and the future. As far as I am concerned, every month is any-type-of-cancer awareness month. Fighting and living beyond this wretched disease is up to each of us.
To healing and living,