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.