In my ongoing rant against Pinktober, I’ve asked the question many times without getting an answer: what does all the breast cancer “awareness” make us more aware of, exactly?

I ask in all seriousness. I know what I think when I see a package of paper towels all decked out in a pink-ribboned wrapper, but I’m curious about the average, non-cancer-infested person. How does breast cancer “awareness” affect those who’ve not personally been waylaid by breast cancer? If I were just some normal person, going about my daily life and I saw an ad in the window of the TGF Hair Salon advertising their “Clip for the Cure” promotion, what would my reaction be? If I were not unwillingly strapped into the pink dress, would the “squeeze a boob, save a life” bumper stickers make me want to choke someone?

When people see breast cancer “awareness” products and services, do they think, “Oh my gosh, women (and men) are suffering from and dying from this terrible disease?” Do they think, “Damn, I’m sure glad I don’t have that!” or perhaps “Why does that damned breast cancer get all the attention?” or maybe even “mmmmm, breasts” in a caveman-like tone?

Apparently there was a time, not so very long ago, in which I was some normal person, going about my daily life. I don’t recall specifically reacting to any breast cancer “awareness” messages or intentionally buying pinked-up crap because I thought it would save some unfortunate woman’s life. I doubt I gave it much thought at all. Even very recently, as I went about my daily life and scheduled my annual well-woman exam, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness.” When my OB-GYN wrote out the orders for my annual mammogram and I made the appointment and I showed up on that day and I changed into a gown and I stowed my belongings in a locker with a key and I waited in that ugly gown in a freezing cold room set up to look like a spa except for the TV blaring some dumb morning show that was most definitely not relaxing, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness.” (BTW, if I ever do go to a spa that has a TV blaring some dumb morning show, I will turn on my heel and walk out.)

When the mammogram tech chatted with me about how I’m young for an annual mammogram and I explained that I’ve been getting one since I was 36 because my mom died of a reproductive cancer, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness.” I expected the report to come back telling me I had dense breast tissue but no changes had been detected from the last year so I was free to go live my life unscathed for another year, until my next mammogram. When it didn’t exactly turn out like that, I still didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness.” After my last mammogram, as I waited in the freezing cold room once again with the TV still blaring some dumb morning show while the mammogram tech showed my images to the radiologist on duty, I thought not of breast cancer “awareness” but of how much longer that appointment would take because I had a long list of things to do. When instead of being told I was free to change out of the ugly gown and back into my regular clothes, I was called back into the screening room so the radiologist could get a few more images, I still didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness.” When the radiologist suggested we do an ultrasound in addition to the mammogram, and when her gel-covered want hovered over a certain part of my right breast while she made an upsetting and not-very-well-disguised frowny face, I still didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness.” When the frowny-faced radiologist declined to answer any of my questions about what she thought she was seeing on the ultrasound screen and when the mammo tech gently patted my shoulder, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness,” beyond being “aware” that this situation had all the makings of a disaster–a really big, really bad disaster.

When my OB-GYN got the radiologist’s report and called me to say I needed to make an appointment with a breast specialist, I didn’t think much about  breast cancer “awareness.” When I called to make the appointment with the specialist and noticed that the name of her practice was Southwest Surgical Associates, I didn’t think much breast cancer “awareness” because I was busy wondering why on earth my OB-GYN had given me the number of a surgeon. When the receptionist at Southwest Surgical Associates said I needed to go ahead and schedule a biopsy, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because my whirring brain had not quite caught up with my common sense, which would have told me to panic.

While the breast specialist injected me with lidocaine before she inserted a hollow-cored and very sharp needle into my right breast, then twisted that needle to extract a tissue sample deep within my body, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was busy going to my happy place to avoid the searing pain that spread across my chest, despite the lidocaine. When the breast specialist, who at that point was just the breast specialist and not my breast specialist, double checked the coordinates on the ultrasound machine that guided her as she scooped out the tissue sample, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was craning my neck trying to see what she was seeing on that screen. When she was all done and bent down to her little freezer to give me a few ice packs to stick into my bra, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was wondering if the ice packs were too noticeable to stop me from running into the grocery store on my way home.

When the breast surgeon’s nurse Sharon called me a few days later to make sure I wasn’t driving before she said that the doctor needed me to “put her on my social calendar” I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was consumed with a feeling of dread more palpable than anything I’d ever experienced. When I (unfairly) pressed Sharon to tell me over the phone how bad it was and she back pedaled, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was picking apart her every word and intonation for clues to how bad this really was.

When I drove to the breast surgeon’s office the next afternoon, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was instead thinking about how I was going to get ahold of Trevor, who was out of town, to deliver the verdict before he boarded his plane. While I waited in the breast surgeon’s waiting room, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was wondering whether I’d get out of there in time to go home and grab my kids then get across town–in rush hour–for my cousin’s 60th birthday celebration. When the breast specialist said that the biopsy did not look good, I wasn’t thinking about breast cancer “awareness” because I was wondering if I’d live to see my kids grow up. As the breast surgeon–who went from a breast surgeon to my breast surgeon–told me very matter-of-factly that it was indeed cancer, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was focused on the pounding of my heart and the feeling of life as I knew it being replaced by a very undesirable alternative. As my breast surgeon laid out the options for ridding my body of its unwelcome visitor, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was already dressing for battle. When she told me she didn’t want me to make a decision about surgery for at least 5 days, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because my brain was full of slash-and-burn thoughts toward this cancer. When Trevor said he was ditching his business trip and catching the next plane out, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was busy convincing him to stay, because if he changed his plans and aborted his trip, I could no longer operate under the (temporary) assumption that everything was ok.

While I worked the phones and manipulated my calendar to get through the myriad scans and tests required to see if this cancer had spread to other parts of my body, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was still trying to make sense of the fact that at the age of 40, I was a cancer patient. As I researched oncologists and made appointments for them to review my case, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was trying to wrap my head around the fact that I had a breast surgeon and an oncologist. Sitting in the oncologists’ waiting rooms, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was focused on the fact that every single person in those rooms was a good 20 years older than me, and I was pleading with the powers that be to please, please, please let me live another 20 years.

As I scheduled my bilateral mastectomy, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was busy counting exactly how many days there were between the surgery and the last day of school, knowing I would need as much child-free time as possible to heal. When I explained to my kids what was going on, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was desperately searching for the right words to convince them that they weren’t going to watch me die from cancer they way they’d watched my mom die from it.

Healing from the surgery that left me battered, bruised, sore, scarred, and very, very flat (and not just in my chest), I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was busy emptying the 4 JP drains that sprung from my body and tugged and hurt like hell. As I searched in vain in my closet for something, anything, that might make me feel good about myself when I put it on, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was preoccupied with wondering if I would ever get used to my new profile.

And when the post-mastectomy infection took over my body and once again turned my life upside down, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was trying rather hard to stay alive. Upon being hospitalized for 9 days straight just 3 weeks after my mastectomy, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was busy getting sicker and sicker while the doctors tried to keep me from going septic. When I was hospitalized a month later and then again 3 days after that hospital stay, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was consumed with worry about whether the infection could be contained. As I endured 267 days of powerful antibiotics, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was nauseated and utterly beaten down. When I decided to undergo DIEP reconstruction to get a blood supply to the oft-excavated and much-ruined chest wall, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was planning how to endure a 5-to-7 night hospital stay, including a night in the ICU. When I left the hospital with 6 JP drains and a fragile peace between the transplanted blood vessels and their new host site, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was on high alert for flap failure. As I recovered from that surgery, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was, well, recovering from a pretty intense surgery. As I endured two more revision surgeries, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was railing against the much-promoted fallacy that “at least you get new boobs.”

As I began life as a breast cancer survivor, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was busy trying to live my life as a breast cancer survivor. With the passage of time and the re-introduction of non-cancer-related things to my life, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was trying mighty hard to get back on track. As each cancerversary approached–date of diagnosis, date of mastectomy, date of infection, date of reconstruction–I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was thanking my lucky stars that all that was behind me. Then as I realized that “all that” may well be “behind” me but it’s always, always, always going to be a part of me, I didn’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I was busy feuding with the unruly monkey on my back. As thoughts of recurrence snake through my subconscious on a regular basis (say, every.single.day), I don’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I’m way too busy talking myself down off the ledge. When the inevitable thoughts of “why me?” enter my head, I don’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I’m committed to not RSVPing to that pity party. While I’m working my way back to my former state of fitness and wholeness at the gym and am surrounded by perfectly round, non-cancerfied breast implants, I don’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because it takes all my energy to not feel really bad about my post-cancer body. As I gear up for the thrice-yearly oncology appointments and the biannual checkups with my breast surgeon, I don’t think much about breast cancer “awareness” because I’m busy, very busy, following my dear friend Amy’s advice of “don’t borrow trouble” (yet those pesky thoughts of “what if” are very determined to infiltrate my postive-thinking brain).

While I spend a whole lot of my time not thinking much about breast cancer “awareness,” the current culture of Pinktober makes it damn near impossible to not think about it, multiple times a day. Open the newspaper and see the Wacoal ad. Flip on the TV and see pink splattered all over NFL stadiums. Drive down the road and see inane bumper stickers and their infuriating references to the ta tas and the boobies and the girls. Go to the grocery store for necessities and run smack-dab into a sky-high pyramid of pink-labeled Campbells soup cans, which more than likely are chock full of BPA, which has been shown to cause cancer. While in the store, run across a woman wearing a ridiculous t-shirt and accost her for doing so. Tune in for the presidential candidates’ debate hoping to hear a reference to a plan to confront the breast cancer epidemic but come away with nothing but a watered-down homage by the First Lady and the first lady wannabe.

After all this, my question still stands: what does all the breast cancer “awareness” make us more aware of, exactly?





25 Comments on ““awareness””

  1. As I’ve mentioned in a post or two this month, it sometimes seems more like “breast awareness month” than breast cancer awareness month. So, yes, this is a great question you are asking. Rant away, my dear. Rant away.

  2. Eddie says:

    I think a previous post about Komen answered this question. There was a time when this disease needed to be brought out from under a veil of shame. Sadly the pendulum has swung far to the other side and pinkwashing seems to diminish the effects of breast cancer. It’s far too lighthearted. You didn’t think about “awareness” because you were already aware. Let’s stop pointing out the obvious and start finding solutions.

  3. Trevor Hicks says:

    I don’t think the Pinktober retailers want people to become aware of all the mess that’s involved with even a “garden variety” breast cancer such as yours, much less the reality of dealing with mets. It’s bad for business.

    I feel so conflicted – I cannot deny the good of Pinktober which is that millions of people do pitch in to help and millions of dollars are raised for worthy charities. But I can’t help but feel that its core purpose now is to serve as a kind of vehicle for psychological investment by civilians hoping to obtain a karma deferral from being drafted into the front lines of the cancer war. I’m grateful for the help and the genuine support of so many people, but I also hate the way Pinktober makes you feel.

  4. David Benbow says:

    I’m with Eddie. “Awareness” made it ok to discuss a cancer that was hidden in a part of the body that couldn’t be mentioned in public. Now that body part is so public it’s hard to talk about anything else.

    Before I got sucked into the Pink Underbelly, I was “aware”, but it didn’t really mean anything to me personally until there was a name and a face attached to the disease. I’m glad you’re educating me and others (bank tellers and grocery shoppers, etc.). Now, what I’m most aware of is how completely overboard they’ve gone with the awareness campaign and how they need to shift to research mode. Maybe come up with some other kind of ribbon that signifies that the proceeds will go to research instead of just printing more pink ribbons.

    Now look who’s ranting.

  5. billgncs says:

    kind of like Christmas — marketers see an opportunity to make some money, and meaning changes.

    I admit before I had cancer, this event never phased me.Even now I see NFL guys in pink shoes and think ????

    maybe it does help some raise more money.

    • Yes, Bill, it does raise some money, but I’m still gonna blab about how misguided such fundraisers are and how they negatively affect those of us who know better. If only money wasn’t the end-all, be-all.

  6. mmr says:

    Just took a good friend for the needle biopsy yesterday. Unfortunately, she is way too aware of the horrors, as she has helped me through nearly the same things you have gone through. I hope to God she will be able to face future Pinktobers as one of the people who say “Thankfully it wasn’t me, I got lucky”. But like you, Nancy, sometimes I hate being the poster child. Or the expert. I keep telling her the odds on the cancer at our age, the flap failure, the infection are remote– I got the crap lottery, like you did. I laughed at Trevor’s karma deferral reference– maybe that’s awareness, thinking “oh thank the stars it wasn’t me”. Crappy for those of us who did get the short end of that stick. But I too try not to go to the pity party. And maybe awareness is making sure that people know it’s a party they certainly don’t want to attend. You’re doing a good job of that!

    • Marcie, we sure did get the short end of the stick, and while it could be much worse (she says now, that the worst is hopefully over), that doesn’t make it any easier to take. Let’s keep avoiding the pity party together.

  7. Drink2that says:

    Just watch out if “Julyna” takes hold ;). Once again, your posts have enlightened me to what those affected feel like amidst the pink.

  8. gozzygirl says:

    This post resonates with me. I’m only a part of your virtual cancer world. But your words make me want to reach out and hug you. And trust me, I’m not the hugging type. Pinktober will be over soon and our lives can return to the “new normal” again. I really appreciate your pouring out your heart in this post.

  9. I Love You. Again And Again. And… because you likely wrote this in advance of last night’s debate…. there WAS a pink wristband on the president….. Someone on twitter was cheering the subtlety of it… Didn’t want to engage in what would have gone political but I would have preferred they keep ALL pink out of this other commotion. As for the candidate wives that night on (ahem) Long Island… before I realized who was seated in the audience, they jumped off the screen at me…. UGH on pink. We need to swing the pendulum in the extreme other direction to finally get a balance… It’s not that pink is bad… it’s what has happened to pink that MAKES it bad. We can reclaim it. As Gayle says, ReThink Pink…..


    • ReThink Pink should be the new catchphrase, AnneMarie, and if anyone can get that message across, it’s you, girl! Thanks, as always, for your passionate comment. Love reading them and love that you’re in my corner.

  10. So well said, Nancy. I just love your posts, especially during Pink-tober. The meaning of awareness is as elusive as the Loch Nest monster. And not any prettier, no matter how pink they make it. xox

  11. […] has become to those of us who’ve walked a mile or two in the pink slippers, and how Breast Cancer Awareness Month makes me want to punch someone, anyone, in the brain, and the gravity of living among the distinct […]

  12. jane says:

    as the daughter of a 16 year survivor and after being diagnosed on January 27th of this year and about to face surgery #3 for this hideousness, I appreciate this post and really agree. I admit that I’ve always been aware. It’s in my family, so it’s always been there (BRCA neg though). But the constant pink everywhere, on every sporting event, on every product, etc.. just reiterates that breast cancer is a business. Hospitals, facilities, doctors… they are in it for the money– research money, grant money, whatever… they want a cure, but there is money to be had in this and once I became a statistic (at age 42) it’s become all the more apparent that I am now part of that, like it or not. However the money generated has created huge strides in research in the last 10 years as well, so it’s hard to totally discount the pink craziness.

    While I support “awareness”, there comes a point where it’s too much and we become immune to it. And I believe we are well past that point. Lets get on to the DOING and show the world what has been done and what WILL be done.

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