A Cautionary Awareness Tale

On October 31, as I distracted myself with Halloween’s glory, I asked myself: “what do we become aware of this month?” Lots of Facebook posts ask that question, I asked it on Twitter I think. So much sound and fury in October, but does anyone learn anything? I think not.

I forced myself to remember the days before diagnosis. I know I never thought all the pink rah rah crap was great–that’s just a core trait of my personality. But what did I know about breast cancer, and the awareness push, before diagnoses?

This is a tough question to answer. I’m not sure I fully know the answer. I know I absorbed the “early diagnosis/screening” messages. I knew enough to ask for a mammogram earlier that the suggested age (40 at that time), but I still regarded breast cancer, any cancer, as an older person’s disease despite knowing actual patients my age. I asked for a mammogram because I knew I had a higher risk with family history-my aunt had just been diagnosed for heaven’s sake. I knew about ribbons, especially red ribbons (AIDS) and pink ribbons. Did I know October was “awareness” month? Maybe–but it did not “click” with me until the late 00’s.

The incident that made it click with me–well, I’d buried it. I was working in for a non-profit arts organization. Doing film exhibition with local community organizations. In the summer of 2008 or 2009 I began working with a women’s business group. My point collaboration person was suggesting topics for me to find films for our October event. I remember her telling me October was Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

I remember being surprised by that–what a dumb month for such a thing! Let me explain. As a lifelong resident of a beach town/resort area, with my first post-college job being in retail, I had a list of hard and fast rules and truths. Painting October Pink was stupid in my mind. Lots of local “runs” took place in April/May/June anyway–wasn’t spring better for Pink? I’ve lived my life by the ebb and flow of tourist traffic. Panel season, or off-season, events were in a strict path. There was the Greyhound rescue dog weekend, Jazzfest weekend, Seawitch, etc. in October. Where I worked, the annual film festival was the second weekend of November. I had no time for anything else–October was full of deadlines in preparation for this main event–a time of no sleep, no fun, no nothing. I measured these things in amounts of car traffic (for my work travel) and the likelihood of whether I could schedule an event and get any butts in seats during those event weekends (likely not). BCAM had maybe a marathon in one beach town–but there was always a marathon each weekend (bikes the worst, as they interrupted traffic the most, adding to my work travel time). I had no time for breast cancer, awareness, or a month of it . But sure, if I could find cheap film to exhibit about it, I’d see what I could do (this was before the release of Pink Ribbons, Inc.).

I don’t remember what films I exhibited–none about cancer I’m relatively certain. I moved on, forgot about this, got cancer, and now I remember it.

But here is the other thing I’d submerged, and am just now dredging up–a sort of painful memory.

I skipped the main event in 2010, having just been diagnosed, and preparing for the Red Devil. In 2011, I returned, managing over 1,000 volunteers for the annual festival, among other things. I had completed chemo in January of that year, radiation in the summer. I was still doing Herceptin every 3 weeks and my hair was curly and short–just returning. I was exhausted and felt horrible. I ran into the women I’d coordinated with for that event of a few years prior. She laughed and asked why I’d cut my hair so short (I’ve always worn it long). “I had cancer,” I replied curtly. She laughed for half a second then sobered up when she saw I was NOT laughing. “Breast cancer?” she asked. “Yeah,” I grunted.

So here was this person, so into “The Cause” but what did she really know about breast cancer? Breast cancer was a thing to worry about–but a thing that happened to other people–not ones we knew, not ourselves. Breast cancer was a thing to promote because an audience “cared” about it. But not “real”.

I realize now how much this informed my view of BCAM–this ignorance. It’s something to care about, to SHOW care about, but it always happens to someone else.

Until.

This is likely part of my disconnect with such hollow shows of “solidarity” of “Support”. Those things are meaningless to me.  The Pink events–they have little to do with What Really Happens.

I hold no ill will toward this woman–how could I? I was just as ignorant, just as “that won’t happen to me.” I don’t even remember her name, or the organization, and don’t feel motivated to research it. It doesn’t matter. It was just a memory that popped up Monday, unwanted, as I tried to get ready for tricks or treats.

My point is: October and BCAM, those are just “things to do”, the way we do other “holiday” things: buy candy for trick or treaters, buy a turkey and fret about ignorant relatives, succumb to shopping holiday madness, and make the obligatory weight loss New Year’s resolution.

And that is what I hate about October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month: it has become a rote obligatory motion we go through–not real.  Except to those of us who had the dumb fortune to get breast cancer.

And this is what needs to change.

 

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365

Sometimes I think the universe gives me the middle finger at random times.

The previous post, Some Word Problems, was about a few words and phrases wearing me out recently. It took a long time to write—I kept going down many paths, packing in too many topics that annoy me. I struggled to keep on point and wound up making a list of other possible blog posts. Finally I got it down to a somewhat manageable and readable ramble, posted it, and immediately embarked on the rest of my busy day.

As I’ve mentioned before, I live in a rural, yet beach resort area, with a growing retiree population. This means lots of rural roads, traffic congestion—not just in the summer—that causes me to get stuck behind some cars for miles on end.

So what do I get stuck behind, just after posting a rant against the phrases about awareness and support? A large SUV, with a pink ribbon sticker over the left tail light bearing the phrase “breast cancer awareness”, and over the right tail light, a sticker bearing the official Komen version of the ribbon with the word “supporter” under it.

No, no, no…I’m not trying to criticize or belittle the car’s owner. Clearly this person’s heart is in the right place, and has made his or her choices about Pink. S/he has no issue with it—I do. I think the ubiquity of the ribbon has damaged, and will do more damage, to the conversation and the “cause” and to women in general. The damage of Pink for this specific Curmudgeon—well, that is what most of the posts on this blog are about.

But I don’t want to get into that.

It was just an odd moment that made me snort with grim laughter. So often, many breast cancer bloggers point out in the throes of Pinktober–hey breast cancer is every day for us, not just one month. Seeing those stickers I realized that it isn’t just the disease itself that is every damn day. With these stickers and other items folks buy and adorn themselves, their cars, their….argh…everything, with—there is no escape from Pink ribbons, 365 days a year. For me, the desire, the need, to spread the truths about breast cancer that Pink omits, is a 365 days a year task.

Or maybe the universe was just giving me the finger.