October just came to an end, and that means breast cancer awareness month is now over. We had pink ribbons, fundraising walks, and merchandise up to our eyeballs. NFL players wore pink; my hometown of Red Bank, NJ held the “Paint the Town Pink” event and called itself “Pink Bank”. My daughter’s school had a “dress in pink” fundraiser. You couldn’t go to the grocery store or diner without a cheery request for a donation and your name on a small piece of pink paper, for all to see your charitableness.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? It’s a cause that unites all of us – breast cancer is easily a woman’s greatest fear, and we all know someone who has had breast cancer. It’s the one social fundraising cause you can’t object to.
Or can you?
My mom was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996. She had a full mastectomy, lymph nodes removed, chemo and radiation. In 2001 she was diagnosed a second time, in the other, intact breast. She opted for a mastectomy over the lumpectomy, because she said she didn’t want to be told she had breast cancer a third time. We joked. She got reconstruction, and after some minor issues with that, went on with her life. In 2004, when my daughter was a newborn, my mom was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. For the last 7 years (my daughter’s entire life), my mom has been on and off chemo nonstop. She has had breaks of maybe 3 months at a time.
In the beginning, we did the walks. We fundraised like mad, we had a great team of walkers and a cute name – Brass Knockers. We walked with a SURVIVOR. We felt sad for those people who’d lost their loved ones, but we were grateful, happy. We were lucky. We bought a lot of pink, breast cancer themed stuff. I had t-shirts, I had slogans. I had the Melissa Etheridge song on my iPod.
By the third diagnosis, the worst one, we were over the pink haze. My mom, my family and I, we no longer fit it. We’re not in the “survivors” camp and we’re not in the “lost a loved one” camp. My mom is literally a breast cancer patient’s worst nightmare. She is a living horror story, a walking, talking worst case scenario. This is no recovery. There is no “all clear” or SURVIVOR emblazoned on the back of her pink t-shirt. She will never be cancer-free and we will never, as a family, have that sweet feeling of relief again. There is only sickness and drugs and trials for her to endure, and years of grief and coping for my dad and me.
There is joy, yes, and gratefulness, and thanksgiving. We thank God every day for every day. But October is a hard month for us. With all the pink waving about, the support for women like my mom and our family isn’t there.
I can tell you what I have learned about breast cancer; early detection saves SOME lives. The “reduce your risks” suggestions don’t significantly reduce your risks. Family history doesn’t significantly increase your risks. Being “strong” or “a fighter” doesn’t mean anything where cancer is concerned. Cancer, unlike everything else, doesn’t discriminate. A woman who “survives” simply had cancer that responded to treatment. There is no way to prevent breast cancer from coming back. These are truths I wish weren’t, because they are hard and sad and make me uncomfortable. But they are true nonetheless, at least for now. Cancer “facts” change all the time, as we learn more from the men and women who lose their lives to it.
Now that October has come to a close, I’m asking you to do something a little more extraordinary than a walk or a dollar donation. I’m asking you to remember the 155,000 women in the United States like my mom. Remember them and their families. Educate yourself on metastatic breast cancer, even if it’s only by clicking on this link – the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network. Spread the word. Use your Facebook status or Twitter to tell more people about the other side of breast cancer. After this month of pink ribbons and survivors and courage, please be aware of those who will never be “clear”, who will not triumph in the way of t-shirts and slogans, but who will live day in and day out, hoping to keep this disease at bay, hoping to feel good for a weekend road trip or a child’s wedding. These stories don’t have a Hollywood ending; they don’t put a happy face on it. But they are real, and they matter.
My mom and I thank you for taking the time to read this post. We wish you a long, happy, and cancer-free life.
Metastatic Breast Cancer Network