Take the Mythical Image of the Strong Warrior Breast Cancer Survivor And Bury HER Once & For All

Author’s note:

If you are a breast cancer “survivor” who embraces that ideal image–the pink products, the racing for the cure, etc.– I am truly happy for you. I mean that sincerely, without my usual dose of sarcasm. And just as sincerely, I beg you to stop reading this post, you will probably find it offensive. As nearly always, there will be foul language, because that is how I speak.

This post is for the ones who got breast cancer, and went into it doubting, or maybe at first embracing, what I shall henceforth refer to as The Image. It is for those of us who at some point realized we could not live up to The Image. And for those patients lost and unsure, feeling set adrift, away from the pink anchor. This post is for them–you–us. -anotheronewiththecancer, AKA cancer curmudgeon

Why do I propose this burial? Because I think this mythical image is dangerous. I’m tired of hearing or reading about women who feel they cannot live up to The Image; becoming depressed, maybe suicidal, because of the way this pressure made them feel. I’ve encountered this sort of despair a few times recently, and enough is enough.

I’ve used this comparison before, I think. Let’s say a gun is pointed at your head. Maybe you get shot. There will be blood, there will be pain, and you might die. At the most basic level, cancer is just like that, a gun pointed at the head. You get cancer, you will bleed, you will have pain, and you might die. Most people, when having a gun pointed at the head, would shit themselves. Breast cancer patients however, are expected to run a race, smile, and fight, fight, fight! Like a good little girl. Whoops did I just say that? So when these women cannot live up to the expectations, not only do they feel awful because they have cancer, but they feel like they are letting EVERYONE down, especially those who’ve supported them, but also the world at large that expects certain behavior from the breast cancer she-ro.THIS IS WRONG.

I get it, there is a desire to fit in, to find support somewhere, and the smiling pink parades look inviting. Some women find solace in the support of a sisterhood. (BIG ALERT: I’m an only child and glad of it, so the notion of sisterhood baffles me.) We all want to belong. One of the many problems is, The Image pretends to invite everyone, but it does not; it is actually quite exclusive–I’ll stop short of using the d-word. Dissenters and doubters with breast cancer are ostracized. Don’t believe me? Read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. The first chapter is Ehrenreich’s description of her breast cancer experience, called “Smile or Die: the Bright Side of Cancer”. Some of the incidents she described were all too familiar (hint: a breast cancer patient suggested Ehrenreich get professional help for her “bad attitude” I got similar advice while making what I think is a valid point on Huffington Post). In my humble opinion, it should be required reading for ALL newly diagnosed breast cancer patients.

And notice I only mentioned breast cancer patients. But even not all breast cancer patients are invited, I’ve learned by reading blogs. I’ve read some ugly stories about the ones with Stage IV getting shut out of the “support system.” But of course, they are the awful reminder that breast cancer is not totally beatable, as we’ve been led to believe. “They” can never fit into the The Image. *I use they in quotes not to reflect how I feel about those with mets, but to reflect how I believe The Image machine views those with mets.

Guess who else is not invited to the pink party? Patients with ANY OTHER KIND OF CANCER. I hate that. Why are they excluded? That is a can of worms to open on another day, another post. I will offer this thought to ponder: is it because we just expect them to die, and by that I also mean get out of our sight, as an embarrassment like the mets breast cancer patients, because they cannot beat cancer and fulfill that stupid warrior stereotype? Ask your nearest ovarian or pancreatic cancer patient, they can tell you what’s up, in language you may not want to hear.

I knew pretty much from the get-go that I would not live up to The Image. For those who’ve read some of my other posts, it is pretty clear I was never the cheerleader-joiner type. So of course I’d be the glowering dissenter in the corner. Honestly, I did try to be a good patient (not just a good breast cancer patient). I followed orders, took tests, showed up at appointed times, eventually joined a support group. As treatment progressed I learned some hard lessons about following doctor’s orders, like the need to challenge medical proclamations handed to me, because mistakes were made, but that is another post.

I think I rejected the Pinktober stuff even before I was diagnosed. As an alt-punk Gen-Xer, I hate it when I am being sold to, and tend to look for the lies beneath all shiny images, and I knew The Image, along with the pink crap, was being SOLD to me. These days, as a breast cancer patient, the Pink just infuriates me, rather than simply annoying me on an intellectual level.

When some acquaintances walked in a pink event in my name, I was gracious, I love the little pink rubber- duckie they gave me, and I will never forget their kindness. But I won’t EVER walk or run, I won’t buy pink crap. I don’t need to go into the reasons why walk/runs are not effective fundraisers, nor need I explain that cancer simply cannot be shopped away. Other bloggers have done that, and if you’re still reading this post, you already know this.

That said, this post is not me saying, “Oooo look at me, I’m so clever and strong to have rejected The Image without ever falling into the trap”. On the contrary, the marketing, the peer pressure, in cancer communities is so prevalent, it is amazing anyone ever questions anything. No, this is me defending the ones–us–who don’t want to, or cannot fit into this distorted ideal, The Image. I mean that with more conviction than nearly anything I’ve ever said in my life.

I’m not going to go into how The Image developed, there are some good books out there about that. I am aware the advocacy movement started as a way to support women’s health, bring breast cancer out from the whispering shadows, so women could demand better treatment. This is a good thing. But in a few decades, the pendulum swung completely to the other side, to the point that we shout about breast cancer from the rooftops, and there seems to be subtle pressure to be damn near proud of having it while sporting pink clothes and bald heads.

Of course I’m glad breast cancer is out of the shadows, but in keeping with the insane American ideal of “if a little of something is good, a lot of it is better”, now it has gone over to the ridiculous. We need to bring the pendulum back. We need to slow down, find the middle ground. No more ideals, no more she-roes, survivors, warriors, no more hollow “you’re so brave” compliments. I’m no she-ro. I am no warrior. I am not brave, I screamed and cried raged often enough I assure you. I am simply a woman who found out she had a life-threatening illness, made logical, somewhat informed decisions to eliminate that threat, and tried to deal with all the emotional crap that came with it. I made these choices because I wanted to live, not die. It is that simple. Don’t ascribe these words and their hollow meanings to me and my experience, it is not your right to do so.

So to those breast cancer patients, or survivors or whatever you call yourself, who are struggling because you don’t think you are “doing cancer right”, I doubt this silly post will ease your pain. I can’t remove the pressure of The Image from your back, and maybe no one can do that but you. You will need to be the one to take this mass delusional Image and chuck her out the window, where she belongs. The only way The Image will cease to exist is if enough of us ignore her.

I am sorry if I come off harsh. A lifetime of being unable to conform to much has made me a bit rough around the edges at times. The cool kids or the mainstream (in breast cancer, in life) tend to be intolerant of “the other”, and since I usually fall into that category, I cannot help but be a bit snide about being an “outsider” all the time. I tried not to criticize or judge, but at times I feel criticized and judged by the mainstream pink community and it is hard not to reciprocate. I am ashamed of that because I am truly trying to be a better person.

I do not have any proposals on how to solve what I think is a problem (and yes, it is a problem if someone goes through cancer treatment successfully, and then wants to commit suicide for being unable to live up to The Image–no matter how you spin it). As usual, I am the jackass in the corner pointing out what is wrong without much of a constructive suggestion. I don’t have a degree in Sociology or Anthropology, which is probably what is required to understand the nature of the cancer subculture. If I could lead an army of like-minded folks down the highway in October, destroying every hint of pink I saw, I would do it, but I doubt that will ever happen. All I can think of to do is reject it for myself, and offer a helping hand to anyone else who wants to do the same.

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Author: Cancer Curmudgeon

Oct 2010 diagnosed with Stage 3, HER2+ Breast Cancer. Completed treatment Jan 2012. Waaaaaay over pink. Applying punk rock sensibility to how I do cancer.

54 thoughts on “Take the Mythical Image of the Strong Warrior Breast Cancer Survivor And Bury HER Once & For All”

  1. Reblogged this on Riding the BC Roller Coaster and commented:
    Thank you for saying it . . . all of it. I’m currently stuck dealing with the aftermath of treatment while having had a biopsy in the Other Boob only yesterday.
    And I resemble that remark – all of it: only child, always the “other,” the one in the corner speaking the ugly truth rather than the pretty mainline . . .

    Like

    1. Thank you so much for your comment and for the reblog, I know this is a long difficult ramble, and will be unpopular. I’ve always said or posted that if just one person is pleased or helped or whatever by what I say, then that is all that matters. Thanks for being the one.

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      1. It is really my pleasure to be the one. Like you, I have many thoughts and feelings that society wants me to feel bad about, but are valid and appropriate. Thank you for letting me know my appreciation matters. It helps me to hear it too. 🙂

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  2. dear cc,

    you’ve done a great job and a needed service to dissect the “Image”, applying your take and your voice to an issue that traps many with BC (and other cancers) into feeling that conformity with that image is a road to acceptance, and worse, a road to beating cancer. it’s hard to understand how the millions and milliion of us who get a cancer diagnosis would fall into a herd of pink madness – so many unique and beautiful persons and minds occupied with fitting in; this is the 21st century – we need individuals who have both the power and the intellectual means to use their unique perspectives and experiences to re-direct the herd and contribute to a new fresh and thought provoking conversation – both about coping, and about how to unlock the mysteries of diseases that hold a gun to our heads. you, dear cc, are accomplishing both. thank you,

    love, XOXO,

    karen, TC

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  3. dear cc,

    i am blown away by your response to my comment. and i love. love that you say, “thank you, times like, a million…” i have some southern roots from my dad, and though when i was a child, he was harsh and unloving, the last 20 yrs. of his life we became close. he always said, “thanks a million”,and i get so tickled when i find myself saying that. anyway, it is my absolute pleasure to be able to read your blog; and if i have in any way made you feel validated and supported – well, all i can say is, “thanks a million!” for letting me know. xoxo, karen, TC

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  4. Woot! Woot! It’s funny, as much as I am a gadfly par excellence, when I was first diagnosed there was a brief moment where I thought that there was some prescribed way that I had to move through this. That lasted for about 30 minutes, but it was still there. When you’re vulnerable to fall into ruts like this thinking you will be the better for it. I hate that warrior/survivor shit with an unmitigated passion.

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    1. From where I stand it seems the problem is that it is only a few dissenting voices are out there to present the alternate way to face cancer, and one has to dig to find the voices. How do we scream louder, to shout down The Image–not just the pink, but the yellow bracelets as well?

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      1. I am learning that there are more than we think–many realize this once they’re in the soup themselves. I say we keep gnawing away. We’ll break through–one gadfly at a time.

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  5. Amen!! Well put! There is so much pinkness and warrior crap that many — even patients themselves — forget that we are dealing with a deadly disease here.

    And I HATE that survivor image — what a terrible thing it implies for women who don’t beat this disease, that they fought with less strength or that they wanted it less than the lady in the next chemo chair. It’s cancer, folks, it takes who it wants and it doesn’t care whether you are brave or strong or scared shitless — or, likely, all three. It takes who it takes. Period.

    Thanks for blowing this pink survivor stereotype open and for saying what is not popular, but right. You are terrific!

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  6. Great post, thanks for saying so well what I’m thinking. You said it much better than I wrote in my posts Worlds in our Words and again in Embracing Breastlessness:

    “Reflecting on 2012, the world and I needed improvement. Here’s what I don’t resolve to spend energy on: I am not going to battle or wage a courageous fight against breast cancer. I decline to be a soldier in the war on my disease. Nor will I win or lose or survive any struggles as a crusader on a cancer campaign.” http://conflictcompetence.wordpress.com/2012/12/24/worlds-in-our-words/

    “As a conflict manager, I’m accustomed to brain-storming all the options and creating novel ways of resolving problems. However, sometimes the issue presented as needing solutions just isn’t a problem needing fixing in the first place. More than just leaving good enough alone, I’m embracing the change.” http://conflictcompetence.wordpress.com/2012/11/03/embracing-breastlessness/

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    1. Thanks for bringing your posts to my attention L. Had not read them prior to writing this piece, or my pieces about opting out of reconstruction. I hope many more women make the resolution you made, declining to be “soldiers in the battle.”

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  7. Thankyou. I agree whole heartedly!
    As a matter of fact I posted Barbara Ehrenreich’s article on my Facebook Page, and NOBODY commented on it or even “liked” it, (I suppose that’s because they are really didn’t like it!) except my brother who has some serious health concerns of his own right now, and he said we had to stay positive because the alternative was to be negative and that would end up causing one to be depressed on top of everything else!
    When I told a Facebook “friend” that catching sight of my bald head in the mirror jarred sometimes as it just screamed “cancer patient”,.she said to her it screamed “cancer survivor!”, to which I rather tersely replied, “try wearing it!” I was feeling a bit grumpy that day!! :p

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    1. Nothing wrong with being grumpy when you have cancer! Thanks for liking this post, I know it is difficult, and often perceived as negative. You bring up an interesting point–or your brother does–about positive/negative. While it is true that those two things are opposite, I am tired of the either/or and no other option in cancerland. I used to see the world in terms of black and white too, I remember distinctly loving a Calvin & Hobbes comic addressing that (Calvin yells something like “sometimes that’s the way things are”). I am sure I will address it (again–I’ve sort of touched on it before) in an upcoming post.
      I do not think this post is all negative, for the record. I am suggesting what I think is a good action, that will ultimately help a lot of women.

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  8. Thank you for this. I am actually doing the Race for Life thing soon and have to say that I am running it for me – to prove I am alive. I have people running in it and others like it for me, in my name and I DO NOT WANT TO BE A CAUSE. I am scared, I am not inspirational. I did not feel able to question medical procedure and opinion because I am a “good ” girl. So I am confused and angry and vulnerable and oh unsure about everything. News about a recent celebrity’s death of breast cancer has knocked me for six just when I was beginning to feel positive about about the future. this death has reminded me that it could be me – today, tomorrow, next year. I am not a hero, not inspirational. I am human.

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    1. Perfect comment is perfect! Thank you for reading my blog! And I am glad you are alive, and running for your own self. Are you referring to the Dublin singer who died July 4, 2013? I read that too. I was unaware of her, and then I saw she was initially diagnosed HER2+ in 2010 like yours truly. A scary story and reminder indeed.

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  9. Thank you so much for this article. I am not a cancer survivor, just someone who loved and took care of two precious relatives lost to “OKCs” (other kinds of cancers), but I know when and if I am ever diagnosed, I would fall into pieces, and this outlook will/would help me to pick myself up again. Cancer is a very complex thing that is wrought with a spectrum of emotions. Again, thank you for putting a voice to thoughts that I know a lot of other people have concerning cancer.

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    1. Jo Ella,

      I am certain you would NOT “fall to pieces” if you were ever unlucky enough to have this horrible diagnosis.

      For one thing, caring for, and losing, two loved ones to cancer must be at least, if not more, difficult than having the disease oneself (imho)

      For another, I subscribe to two breast cancer support forums, and am constantly surprised at how some ladies first post sounding utterly hysterical and scared (literally) witless, and then by a month or two down the line, THEY are the ones doling out the supportive, helpful and sensible advice to others who are newly diagnosed and hardly know which way is up. It’s really quite interesting 🙂

      May you never need to go there! xxx

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    2. Thank YOU for reading. This post was specific to breast cancer when I wrote it because it was inspired by a few breast cancer patients in turmoil–but it should apply to all other cancers as well. If you explore my blog, you’ll see I address that a bit, and will do so more in the future. I know breast cancer best because I had it and maybe I cannot always speak for other cancers, but I can empathize, and will do so to the best of my ability.
      If you are so unlucky as to get any cancer in the future, you might fall to pieces, or not. Impossible to say. Either way, I hope you remember what you’ve read here, and that it helps–that is the whole reason why I started it. There are so many other options besides the “warrior woman” image, here is my idea for such an alternate option. I hope it helps as many people as possible.

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  10. This is great, and I wholeheartedly agree. As a person with Stage IV breast cancer, the notion of being a survivor never worked for me. I live with it, everyday, every minute, there is no relief, so you accept and move on. All the pink, the cheering, the smile and fight, it is just a coping mechanism for those who need to feel some control over their situation. I gave up the idea of control, it is too disappointing. I live my life by the minute, and try to enjoy every one i’ve got. And that’s what we all should be doing, cancer or not, because no one knows when their time is up.

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    1. Ooooo control, now there is an issue I’ve been writing posts about, and trashing them in dissatisfaction. It needs to be addressed, and I will, when I think I can get it right. And yes, it is a bit of an extension of what I’ve said in this post. Thank you for checking out my blog, I hope this one and other posts work for you!

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  11. Thank you for speaking your mind… recently I lost a dear friend I met online thru facebook, and we met due to the fact that I had had cancer, and she was dealing with it at the time…… we formed a group of sorts with others, and shared much information, and little tricks that help with all things chemo/rads, how we dealt with our obnoxious teens and egghead hubbies.Well, this friend felt the need to form other comforting groups so, she sort went out on her own and developed a few groups/chats for folks near her in the UK, as well as some from US and other places. ~ when she started really having problems and the cancer was taking over, I was sickened by how many “cheerleaders’ switched teams on her, and shunned her~~I am still livid over it.
    Also, your points about the “pink” fundraising ::::THANK YOU FOR SAYING IT, FOR I AM SICK OF IT MYSELF! Cancer is cancer, no matter where the shit starts! Truly, Komen and other foundations have lost sight of original intentions, I know firsthand…..
    Anyhoo, keep doing what you do, darlin’
    many thanks and much encouragement from
    Sheranda Robinson

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    1. Thank YOU for reading. What happened to your friend was exactly the sort of thing running through my mind as I wrote it. Sometimes I wonder at the sum of opposites that seem to make up cancer. People offer help, bring food, do chores all for the patient, but the price is, apparently, that the patient must act a certain way. I still struggle with this notion even as I’m no longer in active treatment.

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  12. Thank you so very much for this post and the blog theme in general. When I was first diagnosed with thyroid cancer (the good kind, haha!), I joined online forums and support groups and was so very ready to join the parade and run the damn marathons, since it gave me a sense of belonging, a feeling of control over what is happening to my body and I was going to do everything right. 7 months later I am in a situation where nothing has happened according to plan, meds are not working, possible recurrence, etc., a lot of the first responders have faded away and in view of others I am apparently not positive enough, otherwise I would have beat this crap, right? I used to blog a lot more openly (in my country you don’t talk about cancer, talk about shaming) until I started receiving comments about not being upbeat enough, not eating the right foods, just generally not being enough. I ended up creating an alternative Tumblr blog just to vent the negative side of this process. Thank you for giving me the courage to speak more openly about the negative side.

    P.S. I’m not a native speaker of English, but I hope the idea is clear anyway:)

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    1. You were very clear! And with each passing day I become more convinced there is no “good” cancer, and I never needed convincing in the first place.
      I am so honored that the courage to speak more openly about the negative side is what you get from my blog..that is exactly what I intended. Thank YOU, for that.
      Sounds like you might have hit on some of my other posts, like New & Improved, and A Necessary Repeat, if not, they might resonate with you given what you say here.
      Again, your comment means much to me, it is inspiring.

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  13. Thank you for continuing to open my eyes to the pink Myth!! I could never understand as a women with a Gynocological cancer that I was excluded from all of this and felt that those with breats cancer got preferential treatment!!! Support groups, exercise classes , breast care nurses etc etc … I do so wish that some of these options were available to all… However in saying this I now understand the need better as BC is not pink at all but a terrible illness that causes many to die… Pink just made it feel it was an “ok cancer” to have …… Thanks to you and others for giving me greater understanding ..

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    1. I lost both testicles to cancer and have felt that my own struggle was minimised. It is true that my treatment was a lot easier than that for the average breast cancer patient – in the space of a few days I went from disgnosis to what was essentially castration. I understand that mastectomy is much more complex and destructive, but to be told that “they’re only balls and getting them lopped off is not so bad because they are not overtly visible like breasts” is a simplistic statement.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Again, as Kimberly said: perfectly put. Back before I was diagnosed I signed up to run a short breast cancer “fundraiser,” and naively asked a younger cousin-in-law, whose mom had died due to mets, if she wanted to run with me. Her eye-rolling and “Do I have to?” comment set me to thinking about Pink, and by the time I’d been diagnosed and read Orenstein and Ehrenreich I felt I knew *a little* about how she felt. How awful to watch this terrible, now largely pointless Pinkspectacle when you’ve been robbed young of your mother by the disease Pinktober has long ceased to help effectively address.

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      2. wow, would love to hear your cousin-in-law’s thoughts. I’ve seen some sniping at pink & “ta-tas” by younger people who are related to breast cancer patients or have other kinds of cancer, which is great, because the peppiness is supposed to attract everyone and ta-tas language is defended by their founders as appealing to young people–and I think that might fall apart in the future. Or I just hope so!
        Hope you are doing well with your diagnosis, and that you are finding solace with my posts, other blogs, and of course in Orenstein and Ehrenreich. 🙂

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  14. Great post – I shared it on macmillan’s breast cancer forum in the UK. I hate the whole survivor crap – as someone else above said cancer takes who it takes its not about fighting. I have a friend who is terminally ill with melanoma she is a complete inspiration to me for the way she has accepted her lot with grace (I am sure she gets very angry as well). My brother died of melanoma 13 years ago and we are still no further forward but it gets no publicity compared to breast cancer.

    The whole pink thing drives me crazy – to me there is no depth its all about being seen to be doing something even if its the wrong thing. I was diagnosed with cancer last march and had neo adjutant chemo finishing in September. I managed to work through the whole treatment and stupidly agreed to do a work trip to Atlanta in early October. I flew Delta – and EVERY single crew member was wearing Pink, I was bald and clearly unwell but they paid not one single bit of attention to that at all. The return trip involved a 5 hr delay and a plane change – the last straw for me after a tough week but not one of the crew showed me any care or kindness. Pretty galling to see their pink clothes and watch endless adverts about how they are supporting the fight against breast cancer but when faced with one of the actual “victims” they did nothing. I was already pretty anti pink but that did it for me!!

    I am one of the lucky ones so far and my cancer journey seems to be done but I will never be the same again, will never have that reassurance that that little pain will be nothing and I know that not everyone is as lucky.

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    1. Thank you for sharing it! I appreciate that.
      Yes, the way breast cancer gets all the attention to the detriment of other cancers is certainly something I’ve tackled on this blog–certainly in October of 2013 and again at the start of 2014 with the UK Pancreatic Cancer PSA mess.
      Ugh, your Delta story is awful! Yes, there does seem to be a bit of being seen as a supporter, without these folks doing actual supporting. Sadly, this phenomena is not limited to breast cancer.
      Your last sentence is spot on!
      Thanks again for reading, sharing, commenting!

      Like

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