Call me cynical, but don’t call me Scarlett.
So far, I’ve spent most of October steadfastly ignoring pink. I have managed to get through most of the local stores this month without traveling the aisles where I would be most assailed by pink-colored merchandise that purports to support breast cancer research or so-called awareness. It doesn’t bother some people. In fact, some people seem to revel in the pink tsunami. Not me. Not this year especially. I’m so utterly sick of corporate merchandising that exploits a deadly disease to sell products; sick of the disconnect between the PR-fashioned face of breast cancer and the ugly reality; sick of the misinformation and mythology; sick of the miniscule percentage of research that is actually spent on metastatic cancer — you know, the kind that kills people; sick of screening tools that are still inadequate and sick of screening guidelines that leave some of the most vulnerable women at risk. This year, as far as breast cancer awareness month goes, in order to preserve my sanity, I’ve had to sit this one out.
I did one thing, for a friend. I participated in one fundraiser for my friend Gina’s organization, No Surrender Breast Cancer Foundation, which was not about pushing pink. It was about helping No Surrender continue to provide accurate info and peer support for those who are newly diagnosed with breast cancer. In particular, it was about No Surrender’s Before Forty Initiative, to help women who don’t fit the screening guidelines get the care and tools they need, to establish a screening baseline before the age of forty, and to get additional screening beyond mammograms, like ultrasounds and MRI’s, to ensure that some of the deadliest forms of breast cancer are detected soon enough to give younger women a chance. My previous post, One Woman At A Time, has more details.
A number of the women who participated in this event were younger than forty when they were diagnosed, and may not have been diagnosed at all but for their persistence and insistence, and my friend Gina’s help. Here’s a photo of us, all of us having dealt with the Beast ourselves, standing in for women throughout the 20th century, whom you may have heard of, but not known about, who had breast cancer: women like Alice Roosevelt, Ingrid Bergman, Myrna Loy, Vivian Lee, Rosalind Russell, and Bette Davis. The pink that appeared in our vintage fashion show was incidental to some of the vintage gowns we borrowed. For a change, it got to be just a color that happened to look good on a few of us, especially with silver bugle beads, high heels, and sparkly jewelry. It was about honoring our past and making a difference for our future. It was about honoring ourselves, about finding out that, despite being lopsided, tired, out-of-shape or achey, hairless from chemo or sweating from hot flashes, we all still cleaned up pretty nicely. And nobody was allowed to sell pink teddy bears.
The house that cancer shook.
That was October 1st. It fell in the middle of my two-week vacation. Before and since October 1st, I have been engaged in wresting my life and my home from the insidious, pernicious grip that cancer and its treatment aftermath have held for three years now. I don’t have time for pink. I’ve been much more engaged in other colors, like stainless steel, chrome, multi-colored Mexican ceramic, and frosted white glass. After three years of fighting post-treatment fatigue, asthma, mental fog, poor sleep, and shoulder pain, I have finally begun to clean house, in every sense of the phrase.
None of the merchandise I’ve purchased lately claims to contribute one red cent to breast cancer, and that’s just fine with me. What it will contribute to is my own sense of wholeness, of digging out from under the misery and detritus of the past three years, of making my house look less like a hovel occupied by a woman with cancer, and more like the home of a woman with a life. The means of my emergence are not glamorous or even symbolic. They include a new kitchen sink, a new bathroom vanity, a beautiful hand-painted bathroom sink, shiny new faucets that don’t leak, a toilet that actually works when I flush it, a new light fixture to brighten my morning ablutions, a dishwasher, doorbells that finally ring, a dryer that works, wood floors that shine once again because I have the energy to clean them. I have not been visiting doctors for a change, but visiting and being visited by a local bank officer and hardware store clerks and the UPS guy and delivery guys with hand trucks and a plumber and an electrician. I have been grateful every day that I bought a house before the mortgage mess began; that I still have a job, even if I’m not up to working full-time anymore; that I still have health insurance; that I have a car that works; that my home has equity, that its mortgage is held by a local bank that knows who I am and has known me for twenty years now. I am grateful that I’m not as tired as I used to be every day, every minute. I am grateful that my last cancer tests were negative, that my right arm hurts but still functions with a little help. I don’t give a rodent’s derriere anymore that one of my breasts is misshapen and mostly missing. I still have two legs. I can walk and talk. I don’t have mets. I’m still alive. And pink has had nothing to do with any of this.
And maybe that’s one of the problems with pink. None of it helped me deal with my personal breast cancer reality. None of the pink-pushers offered to help me scrub the floor or mow the lawn or rake the leaves that fall every October, when I was barely able to scrape myself out of bed. When, only a month after I finished acute treatment, my ten-year-old car died, no awareness organization offered to help me buy a new car. No one helped me cover my drug and doctor-visit copays from my shrinking bank account. No one helped me pay the mortgage or put gas in my new car so I could go to work, stretching my part-time earnings to cover my full-time bills. No one helped me find out that there was this thing called cancer-related fatigue, a scourge that took over my life for months and years, not my oncologists, not the local breast cancer fundraising groups, not even the healthcare clinicians I work with. None of the people or organizations that were relevant to my diagnosis helped me hang on for three years, while I lowered my expectations by the hour, by the minute, giving up on trivialities like having a clean house or a savings account balance, while I struggled as best I could with larger realities like staying alive while keeping a roof over my head. I’m not saying all this because I feel bitter. I don’t. I’m just stating the particulars of my reality, a reality that is not at all unusual, a reality that has been grueling and miserable and worrisome, but is still far more fortunate than what many of my sisters and brothers have experienced.
When I go to bed at night, wondering how I’ll get through the next day, the only pink that helps me get to sleep is the hot pink of the generic benadryl tablets I sometimes take to slow down my whirling brain. When I drag myself out of bed in the morning, to face that day, the only pink that ever guides my steps is the antique glass lamp shade next to my bed.
Otherwise, pink has been irrelevant.
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