That recent article about rejecting the breast cancer warrior role (written by a doctor whose wife died of breast cancer) has provoked some interesting reactions in social media. I’m actually kind of annoyed by BOTH the supporting and protesting reactions. I’ll write a post soon explaining what I mean by that. In the meantime, I realize I still have the same strong convictions about this issue as I did well over a year ago. Here is what I wrote then. Hope to have a new post about it this weekend.
Take the Mythical Image of the Strong Warrior Breast Cancer Survivor And Bury HER Once & For All
Posted on March 28, 2013 by Cancer Curmudgeon
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.