Uniform

Once upon a time, while walking a dog, I ran into an acquaintance and he introduced me to his wife. During the chat, it came up that I was a “survivor.” No lie, her immediate response was, “but you aren’t wearing your pink!” Actual quote—those words are seared into my brain.

I swallowed my irritation and said something inoffensive about how Pink does not really represent breast cancer in my opinion.

We left it at that. These are acquaintances after all, the kind of people to have polite, how-about-this-crazy-weather kinds of chats with; it can be hard to have deep conversations as a dog walker while trying to control barking, pulling, wriggling pets on a leash. I do not think my words about my disdain for Pink went far. I went on with daily tasks, and the incident haunted me the rest of the day, hell, it haunts me now. It was a one-two kick in the gut, that reaction, that statement. First (BAM!), the assumption that I had that particular cancer, and second (POW!), the assumption that as a result of having that cancer, I am obligated to don the Pink uniform.

Is it any wonder folks with other kinds of cancer, especially gynecological cancers, are so sick of breast cancer? I stood there, my female-with-cancer self, so within a split second the assumption was made I had breast cancer, because of the loud messages of Pink that breast cancer is the only one worth paying any mind.

To be fair, breast cancer is way more common than any other cancer except lung, and no one ever assumes lung cancer, at least for a younger woman with no cigarette stuck in her lips. So yes, most people are going to safely bet the favorable odds and assume a female “survivor” had breast cancer.

OK, I can maybe give her a pass on that assumption. But the second punch, aaarrrgghhh.

I had breast cancer, and therefore I MUST wear PINK every damn day? Really?! It was like, not only MUST I join in the Pink army, I have to SHOW IT by donning the uniform? Do folks really expect that?

Here’s the punchline to this story: the woman is a semi-retired nurse—who teaches intro to nursing classes at a local college. So I—unfairly, perhaps—expected more and better. I expect any medical professional to be a bit more savvy—would not their experiences, even for non-oncological nurses, inform them that there are all kinds of cancer? Don’t they see a more varied swath of patients and ailments? Am I really the first breast cancer patient this nurse encountered who disliked Pink?

This incident took place about a year ago. I did not write about for a few reasons. I was very busy, and in the few moments I did have to write a post, I was often distracted by other topics. Plus, I figured most breast cancer patients who are not fans of Pink have similar stories.

So why write it out now?

I keep remembering the incident because to me it seems almost like a fable or tale, telling what it is like to be a breast cancer patient–except it really happened. And the message of the story is simple: this is what the general public expects of breast cancer patients. We are to join the army, battle, and don the pink uniform—there is no room for different opinions, questions, challenges, or anything. Patients who do not conform just befuddle others. Those of us here in Cancerland know that there is no one right way to do cancer, but the general public does not understand this.

The recent months have been full of celebrity cancer stories, setting standards for ALL cancer patients, and much has been written about them—and yes I’ll contribute to all that chatter (when I get a chance to think and write). I know I will refer back to this story again. While I and others know it is acceptable to do cancer differently, that is not what the story on TV tells. And so, we are expected to don the Pink Uniform literally and figuratively.

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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.

26 thoughts on “Uniform”

  1. Ugh…yeah that would have bothered me too… And yep, I know a couple of ladies with other female issue cancers who full on resent bc & all the pink hype it gets, especially in October. Thanks for sharing the story.

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  2. You are so right and I had not really thought of it in quite this way before. There is a breast cancer ‘uniform’ we are expected by many to don and ‘wear properly’. Ugh… Good story. Well, the story isn’t so good, but how you tell it is. Thank you for writing this.

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    1. Thanks! Yes I was sorry it happened but it really nails it for me–how people think all breast cancers, and the patients have the same disease and treatment, and we all deal with it the same way. Thanks for reading and commenting and sharing!

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  3. I think I actually wear less pink now than before breast cancer.
    The scary thing is that this lady teaches nursing. I would expect someone in that position to not only both know better than the stereotypes and refrain from such unempathetic statements, but her attitudes could pass on to another generation of nurses.

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    1. Thank YOU for noting this. I too wonder if her attitudes will infect the students. I do not know exactly what she teaches, it may be that cancer and/or patient interactions do not come up in her lessons. But who knows what can come up in a class discussion. Sigh. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  4. I’ve never been someone to wear pink, my favorite clothing is black, so pink would seem silly and the notion of wearing a particular color to help end breast cancer is just nutty and simplistic to me. It’s unfortunate that a woman who is educating nurses is so “snowed” by the pinkification of breast cancer; she should know better especially since she’s the one teaching a new group of nurses. I personally think that people like the idea of a panacea — that there is a cure for bc, when in fact, anyone who has/had it, knows that it’s not curable, no cancer is. We all just keep our fingers crossed…..and live the days we have as vividly as we can.

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    1. Ha ha, I prefer black attire myself, and I am not fond of attaching colors, ribbons, and monthly campaigns to diseases. And yes, the thought that her views are likely to be shared to impressionable young minds, is sobering.
      It’s true, people want a simple solution to any disease, and for that cure to fit all people, but we’ve learned that does not work. So I agree, all we can do is just live fully and happily!

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  5. dear CC, I can vividly recall past posts where you eluded to being judged and made to feel you were doing cancer all wrong, and wrote so passionately to reassure others who might be experiencing the same thing. what a shame that a nursing instructor would spout such hogwash. and I think you are right; that whole scenario you experienced with her is just like a tale, a fable – with the same tired, inaccurate, yet nearly universal message, especially for breast cancer – do pink, or go home. ARGH!!!

    much love,

    Karen
    OOxOO

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    1. HI Karen–yes, it was just too perfect a fable! For me it just illustrates what everyone expects and the angry reactions we get when we criticize Pink–the latest celebrity hoo ha really made it clear to me. Sigh. I’ll get more into that in future posts.

      Much love, xoxxoox CC

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  6. When I told one of my daughters my awful life transforming news, the comment she came back with immediately was ” Oh mum you poor thing now for the rest of your life you are going to have pink things flapped in your face”

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  7. I have a stomach ache now. Really. I just don’t know how to make people realize that “pink” isn’t a cure, it’s a damn COLOR!! The only “color” that’s going to cure ANY cancer is GREEN = money. So, maybe all cancer patients of every sort should wear green, there’d be a lot more green clothing on the streets and people would be aware that there are MANY cancers. Ugh. I’d better stop or I’ll start ranting. Great post by the way!

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    1. Or people, like my mother, who say “Oh, your treatment is over and you’re all better now”. Don’t I wish !!!!!! End of treatment doesn’t mean you’re cured !!!! As you said , the only cure is the color green – and a LOT of it

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  8. I don’t hate the color pink, but I do hate the pinkification and the pink obligation that comes with breast cancer. When I wear pink items, I do so with a conscious, specific choice, not because I think I have to or because I automatically connect it to breast cancer. The idea that I HAVE to go around clad in head to toe pink like a Barbie dipped in Pepto Bistmol just because I have breast cancer is completely ludicrous.

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  9. I sense a level of arrogance in that comment about you wearing pink or maybe I am so angry at all the “culturally disturbed” people that I am starting to take everything offensive. I ran out of patience and excuses for these people. A nurse you said? Yes, she should have known better. Wait, was she expecting the dog you were walking to wear fake boobs too, like Komen? I was just wondering.

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    1. Arrogance or unforgivable ignorance? I think the Pink image is so pervasive that for some people, it is inconceivable that any of us would want to reject it? She seems nice, I still chat with her, but yeah, the whole thing still irks me, ya know?

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  10. I would have been annoyed too by that comment. I wear pink only because I like the color and in no way do I support SK, at all, ever. It’s up there with the but you don’t look sick comment….

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    1. I’ve never been a fan of pink, I wear it on occasion; old thrift store clothes are my “uniform” as a dog sitter–because I’m always getting dirty and covered in pet hair. It was just the assumption that got to me…

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