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Navigating October as a Breast Cancer Survivor


As we begin October, we enter the month of breast cancer awareness. I was diagnosed with Stage IIA breast cancer at age 39, and I am so exceptionally grateful for the love and support shown to me during my treatment and recovery, which is still shown to me as a survivor. It’s truly moving to see entire communities come together every year to eradicate this disease.

But I want to tell you one of breast cancer‘s dirty little secrets: many breast cancer survivors find October very difficult. You’ll often find us smiling during our “special” month, but inside we are struggling to hold it together. Here are a few reasons why:

We are already well aware.

It’s been nearly five years since my diagnosis, and my life has settled into a new normal. I no longer think about my cancer constantly, but I am still plenty aware of it. I am aware every time I shower and see the two long pink scars. Every time I get dressed and my clothes fit differently. Every morning when I swallow the medication that is hopefully keeping a recurrence at bay, and nights when I wake up with severe hot flashes from said medication. Every time I am denied life insurance, because I am apparently still too great of a risk to qualify for a policy even though I’m only 44 years old. Every time my heart races at an exam or blood draw or follow-up appointment, I am aware.

Most of the time, however, these are moments in an otherwise fortunate life. I have worked hard to move forward from those dark days. And I clearly understand raising research dollars is something to be grateful for.

But then October arrives and “pinkwashing” arrives with it. It’s everywhere. If I go to the grocery store or to get coffee, I’ll find pink M&M’S, cups, doughnuts, cookies, bagels, toilet paper and cups of yogurt. At Target there are pink golf balls, frying pans, drill bits, shoes, hats, T-shirts, scarves, pens and Post-it Notes. Going to my job downtown means driving past pink billboards, fountains with pink water, posters, banners and buildings lit up with pink. Turning on the TV means athletes wearing pink cleats, referees with pink whistles and fans waving pink towels while they wear pink jerseys. Did a My Little Pony explode on my life or what? For an entire month breast cancer patients are bombarded with reminders every, single minute. It’s a lot to handle, especially because breast cancer patients often struggle with being seen as something more than just our cancer.

Breast cancer is not locker room humor.

Plenty of awareness campaigns are tasteful regarding what patients with breast cancer must deal with. And plenty of campaigns are not — they make breast cancer a joke with crude terminology and imagery. As if our struggle is something that is OK to jest about like a preteen. You’ve seen the slogans:

“Save the Ta-tas.”

“Squish Your Boobies.”

“Save Second Base.”

“Cop a Feel So Cancer Can’t Steal.”

“Save a Life, Grope Your Wife!”

I was invited to a breast cancer awareness 5k race last year sponsored by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was called – wait for it – Treasure Chests. Seriously.

Some may argue any awareness is helpful, but I’m puzzled as to why women with breast cancer have to forfeit their dignity for this purpose. Other diseases don’t seem to get reduced to this level of juvenile humor. I don’t ever hear slang terms thrown around in other awareness campaigns. I didn’t have “boobie” cancer; I had breast cancer. I understand I have to maintain some sense of humor about things, but I know I speak for many breast cancer patients when I ask you to please refer to our former body parts with respect and maturity.

The guilt. So. Much. Guilt.

I have guilt I’m not more grateful for so many people who are honestly trying to do a good thing. Where would I be without the kindness of others during my illness?

I have guilt I got a kind of cancer that gets this degree of attention. What about all the other kinds of cancer? For instance, do you even know what color ribbon represents lung cancer? Why is my kind of cancer treated as more important than others? Guilt that my cancer gets an entire month of awareness. Some common and devastating diseases get one day of attention, if that. My heart breaks.

I have guilt I got the kind of cancer that will most likely have a happy ending. I am well aware some breast cancer patients will not be cured, and many other cancers are not curable. I pray for these patients, and I also pray I will someday understand all of this.

I wonder about all of these things on a daily basis, but usually just in moments. Until October, when I am given the opportunity to think about them every, single time I see something slathered in pink.

If you are participating in any kind of breast cancer awareness campaign this year, thank you. I know in my heart your efforts are coming from a good place. And I am truly so grateful for your support. But October is hard, so please forgive me if I keep my head down and hope November comes quickly.

This story originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Moms Blog.

Getty image by anyaberkut