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.

 

Advertisements

Unnecessarily Pink

My entry into the #WhyIsThisPink fray is a bit different but important to me. I get that most submissions are the silly, pinkwashed items created simply to fatten the bottom line of corporations using the color to get some goodwill from mostly female shoppers. So why have I chosen to submit here a picture of the cancer center where I was treated, all aglow from the soft pink light shining on it for the month of October?

20161012_203117

I’ve ranted about this in What Do You Mean There Are OTHER Kinds of Cancer Besides Breast?!–three (3!) years ago (but this picture was taken only a few days ago). Here is what I said about it then:

I do not understand the need for breast cancer awareness…at a cancer center, for crying out loud. A building that exists as a place to treat cancer patients is the epitome of all cancer awareness. Thus, a pink light becomes overkill, a pink light becomes the favoring of patients with breast cancer—their lives? their money?—over all other cancer patients, a pink light becomes the shoving of a cause down many gagging throats.

I still hold the same opinion. Yes, businesses selling alcohol, deli meats, and cosmetics (all things that might increase cancer risk), are worthy of calling out. But a cancer center bathed in pink light–a center that does NOT use other colored lights in other months–is far worse to me.

No, I’m not flirting with conspiracy theory here–this isn’t some Big Pharma/Medical Industry-is-withholding-the-cure-because-it’s-more-lucrative-to-keep-cancer-patients-in-treatment tinfoil hat kind of thing. I revisit the medical industry ethics as I’ve done before in Medical Obligations and SELL!. It is important to keep in mind how hospitals/cancer treatment centers sell their services with some of those questionable messages: “your cancer can be an opportunity for personal growth”. Or the how the existence of breast care ONLY facilities make breast cancer a proxy for all of women’s health, when we all know heart disease is the actual number one killer of women, with lung cancer coming in at number two. Medical institutions emphasizing breast care to play into fears of women rather than correcting those fears (to get their money?) is tantamount to medical misinformation. And the result in me is even more mistrust than I already had.

I’m aware some medical professionals object to being called health care providers, insisting they are not mere service providers. But I think it is important for people (especially in the US) to keep in mind that we do indeed purchase care, and it is costly. To remove the monetary element, as if talking about money is somehow gouache when it’s about “saving lives”, this is just wrong. Patients and “providers” alike need to get over it. For me at least, the financial aspect of cancer is a big part of the ongoing stress of cancer.

And I reiterate, a pink light on a cancer treatment center just screams out to me this message: so many women, so much breast cancer, let’s lure them here, we need those customers, whoops, we mean patients. Always remember, we are both of those.

That’s the money side, the pink-for-profit side, of my entry into #WhyIsThisPink. But of course I have more.

What really bothers me about a pink-lit cancer center is that it reinforces how Pink has become such a Godzilla that all other cancer patients are feeling ignored and angrier with each passing year. I’ve noticed an increase this year (keep in mind this is just my perception here) of angry reactions when we criticize the perky Pink. Or even in pieces that do NOT criticize Pink, but rather embrace it. “What about X cancer?” inevitably pops up.

I can understand this anger to a point. As I stated in the above referenced blog post:

This is what Pink has come to; some perceive it as edging out absolutely every other disease and cause in an obnoxious way, and one’s perception is his or her reality. It is not exactly clear who these patients hold responsible for all this shoving down of the throat. The pieces I’ve seen and read do not seem to differentiate between products with ribbons on them (the kind that claim to send a few pennies to a charity or the ones that just have a pink ribbon with no such claim), pink parade-like races, or people wearing anything from tiny pink ribbon pins to head to toe pink-logoed ensembles. Perhaps it appears all the same to the very frustrated.

I can understand how ungrateful we must sound when we criticize all the Pink crap. But my understanding of this has developed a limit. (For starters, I again refer to Burden of Gratitude.) The other day I actually saw someone ask in a comments section “why does breast cancer get all the attention?” Really? The concept that there is no such thing as a dumb question is a lie–THAT is a dumb question. Breast cancer gets all the attention because sex sells, and well, boobies. Anyone who does not understand that clearly does not understand the concept of advertising and that is inexcusable in the 21st century. Grow up.

I’ve said before that awareness is a two way street. All the corporations and people drenched in Pink, making breast cancer sexy and cute in the name of “awareness” need to become AWARE of the unintended consequences, which is the impact on other cancers. That would be the resentment, the ill will that is now becoming apparent from advocates of other diseases. Yes, I realize not ALL advocates display this resentment, but it is there, and deserves acknowledgement. And it isn’t just the Pink pushers that should be mindful of what is going on. I have voiced before, and do so again, strenuously, that resorting to the comparison, the “what if everyone made X cancer sexy” is a tone deaf and insulting method. Some cancers/diseases are so ignored, that many would welcome ANY kind of attention. Just as it does for some members of the breast cancer community, the “any awareness is good awareness” point of view rules.

Now, of course, I think that viewpoint is wrong-headed.  I am merely acknowledging how tone deaf that particular comparison comes off when breast cancer patients, with our “first ribbon problems”, drag out the “let’s make X cancer sexy” cliche. But here’s the thing: I’ve seen so much in the way of knee-jerk reactions this year–and very little listening, very little effort to understand the many well thought out arguments we make. It is very easy for advocates to snap, “X cancer should be so lucky, look at all the money/attention breast cancer gets”. It is time for all awareness, not just breast cancer awareness to grow up, to become savvy. The issues of unjust fund allocation to metastatic breast cancer has been explained time and again. The issue of how so many businesses slap a pink ribbon on something and donate very little or even nothing, has be explained repeatedly. The theory that all this rah rah visibility has “cured” breast cancer so that it is a “good” cancer has been debunked thoroughly. Yet, these issues must be re-explained each October. And it seems rather than actually reading/listening/comprehending, all I see is knee-jerk reactions “stop biting the hand that feeds and pay attention to X disease.”

Maybe we ALL need to stop and take a breath and have some kind of discussion in which a side is presented and another side is not allowed to respond for a few minutes. That old adage about listening to respond rather than to understand, or that idea that 51% of communication is listening (NOT talking), these things are true. The problems with Pink are being explained, thoroughly, carefully. But we don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

I guess this is why I have not been able to write a post in a few weeks. It is difficult enough to explain The Way Things Are In Pink CancerLand during the year; in Pinktober it seems impossible.

I return to my #WhyIsThisPink submission of a cancer treatment center bathed in pink light–an insult to the patients with other cancers who are also treated there. We’ve got to move forward and evolve in all disease discussions. That pink light on a cancer treatment facility is blinding everyone. Turn it off.