This is breast cancer awareness.
The SCAR Project is in town. My town. I went yesterday. What an experience.
I was dilly-dallying around about going and trying to convince myself that I am too busy to take time out of my jam-packed schedule. Truth is, I was a little nervous about going. I was nervous about seeing the incredibly powerful images and then confronting the emotions they would inevitable bring to the surface. I’m 3 1/2 years out from my diagnosis, yet I know that at any given moment, cancer can upend my “new normal” and bring me to my knees.
I suspected that seeing The SCAR Project images, full-size and in person, would upend me and bring me to my knees. They did.
Seeing them in person, however, is a completely different experience.
I certainly hope I didn’t offend by snapping a quick photo. I don’t see things like this in the ‘burbs where I live.
Nestled into a quaint neighborhood surrounded by bustling businesses, Gremillion & Co Fine Art, Inc., is spartanly understated. The lush greenery surrounding the modern-but-not-out-there building and the pieces of sculpture flanking the gallery speak to the idea of popping inside for a quick fill of art in the middle of the day.
I gotta come back in the spring and see this wisteria in bloom.
Enough stalling. Time to go inside.
There’s a sign on the gallery door that requests that visitors keep their conversations to a minimum and in a whisper because of the gripping, emotional response people have had to the photographs. While some not so intimately acquainted with the beast that is breast cancer might find this intriguing and perhaps even titillating, it did not have that effect on me. I felt certain my initial misgivings about witnessing the photos were true.
A small table filled with programs and copies of The SCAR Project book stands in the entrance. A cut-out window just behind revealed a man eating lunch, and I realized that man was David Jay, founder and photographer of The SCAR Project. I asked the docent if that was indeed him, and she nodded. I told her that I’m a survivor who greatly admires his work. She said, I thought you might be a survivor.
How did she know? What caused her to suspect? Perhaps the majority of visitors to the exhibit are. Or perhaps she read the fear and trepidation in my eyes. Either way, she smiled sympathetically and stepped away. Next thing I know, David Jay is standing right beside me, saying hello. Wow. I told him how much I admire his work and how grateful I am for him telling the real story. Not the “prettied-up, pink ribbon” story. He nodded and said, “That’s why the subtitle of this project is ‘Breast Cancer Is Not a Pink Ribbon.'” Amen, brother.
In the exhibit program, Jay is quoted as saying, “Still, through all of this, there is beauty. Soul. Courage. These are the things which cannot be taken away.”
Jay told me that he never envisioned working on this project, but that after a friend was diagnosed, the project was born. His mission: to show what breast cancer really looks like, especially in young women; to fundraise for research; and most importantly, to empower the women who have been affected and to hopefully allow them to see the beauty, strength, and resilience in the aftermath.
“For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with body-image issues. Losing my breasts and developing thick, red scars across my chest only made matters worse. I could not bear to look at myself in the mirror. I hope that being a part of The SCAR Project will help me to see something beautiful for a change. Maybe it will help me appreciate my body….It has, after all, created and sustained two new lives; it has fought cancer and won. It’s time I started giving it, and myself, much deserved respect. Maybe if my scars were viewed as art, it would help me to heal.” — Gabrielle, age 30
“The most important part of being photographed was that it made me feel beautiful. It was an opportunity for me to stand tall and strong with my scars and redefine my beauty for myself.” — Emily, age 32
“My challenge has been and continues to be to accept the sorrow, focus on the joy, and remember to share both with the ones I love. Survival is about more than breasts: it is about courage, strength, and the many other attributes that make a woman beautiful.” — Jill F, age 28
In her SCAR Project bio, she says that “a weapon, a FLAK jacket, and a Kevlar helmet didn’t protect from THIS enemy.” She goes on to say that “I am not going to ever get over breast cancer or move past it. I will love with it for the rest of my life. Remission is not a cure.”
Not surprisingly, scars are a recurrent theme among the women featured. “My scars are powerful lines that point to hope, faith, and love.” — Candice, age 30
“Our scars are there to remind us of the times in our lives that are important to remember and they paint a story of not just survival, but of living.” — Eliza, age 22
Some of the quotes by the women featured are so sad, yet so true:
“Cancer does not discriminate; it doesn’t care who you are.” — Jessica D, age 22
“An East-Indian girl, I was a mother to a toddler who fed from cancerous breasts for 20 months. A wife to a husband who left because he feared what my cancer would do to his life. A sister to a man who didn’t know what to say, so said nothing.” — Sona, age 36
“Cancer took so many things from me, but the one thing I may never get over losing is my sense of security. Blood work and tumor markers allow me to live my life in 18-month intervals, but cancer is an unpredictable beast.” — Toni, age 28
“I lost all of my hair, looked like ET, got my boob hacked off along with 9 lymph nodes, got zapped by so much radiation my skin burned and bled, and will need to cut open my stomach and relocate my fat and muscles to my chest. I think sometimes I am so good at putting on a pretty face and acting all put-together that people don’t realize the extent of everything that breast cancer survivors go through. My scars and words are only half the story. They don’t show the emotional and private struggles that are continuously present.” — Vanessa, age 25
Something else Vanessa said really resonated with me: “I’ve never wanted to be the center of attention, or to be regarded as ‘special’ or ‘brave.’ I don’t need to be pitied or felt sorry for. In life, there’s a beautiful balance of happiness and sadness, awareness and unawareness, acceptance and rejection, blessings and misfortunes. These dualities are the moments that define life.”
Not all of The SCAR Project women survived. David Jay tells the story of Jennifer, age 27, who could not travel to New York for her photo shoot because her cancer had spread to her liver. She wanted to do it, though, and asked Jay if his studio had wheelchair access because she could no longer walk up the stairs. Jay told her, “Just come, I’ll carry you up the stairs if I have to.” She never made it to New York.
Each of the women featured in The SCAR Project has an important story to tell. Each has experienced things that profoundly and permanently changed them. Each faced the terrifying reality of cancer at a young age.
As I left the exhibit, I saw David Jay outside, on his cell phone. I waved to him as I walked past to my car. Pulling out of the garage, I thought, I should ask him to sign my program. But I didn’t want to interrupt his phone call. What to do? What to do? Interrupt him. Ask him.
For more information, go to http://www.thescarproject.org. Follow The SCAR Project on Facebook and Twitter (@thescarproject). Watch the Emmy-winning documentary Baring It All and purchase The SCAR Project book.
The WEGO HAWMC is quite a mouthful! WEGO Health describes itself as “social media’s most active online health community — Health Activists. These influencers, organizers, connectors, leaders and contributors are passionate about helping others lead healthier lives.” WEGO Health Activists have thrown out a challenge: the HAWMC, or Health Activist Writer’s Month Challenge. It’s a post-a-day challenge taken on by several bloggers I greatly admire. One of them asked if I was planning to participate, so here we are.
I missed Day 1, so will start with Day 2, which is pretty scrambled logic for this Type-A girl, but part of the challenge is thinking — and blogging — outside of our comfort zones so I guess I’m in.
Introduce your condition to other Health Activists. What are 5 things you want them to know about your condition/activism?
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?
Yesterday I was picking up a prescription at Walgreens — finally one that has nothing to do with breast cancer or the post-mastectomy infection that plagued me for more than a year — and I smiled to myself as I waited in line behind the senior citizens getting their Lipitor and the mom with 3 small kids getting her flu shot (good idea, with those little snot machines attached to her every appendage, said the germophobe in me). I smiled to myself despite the fact that as soon as I walked in the door I was confronted by the display of “pink ribbon products” designed to “raise breast cancer awareness” and “help save a life.” Quotation marks very definitely mine, and intended to convey the maximum amount of snark possible.
I smiled in spite of having passed the pinked-up display of nail polish, glittery lip gloss, pink-ribbon bedecked emery boards, and “hope, faith, and a cure” shower caps (how in the world have I managed without one of those?). I smiled to myself because I was upright, in line at Walgreens under my own steam, having driven myself on a brilliantly sunny day without help from anyone. While my knee is still in recovery mode from the most recent repair, I’m for the most part healthy and able-bodied.
I’m healthy and able-bodied and going about my routine on a very ordinary day with no surprises like finding infection-riddled, 3-inch blisters that were hanging from my mastectomy scars like stalactites hanging from a cave wall. Like the sharp pain that literally felt like a knife blade stabbing through my chest wall as the nerves tried to regenerate after being sliced & diced, post-mastectomy. Like the shock of having caught a glimpse of my new profile in the glass of a store window. Like the pulse-pounding, breath-stealing fear of recurrence that plagues me and other cancer warriors on a regular basis.
No, no surprises yesterday as I waited in line at Walgreens. Instead of surprises, I felt a sense of happiness. A sense of calm. A sense of — dare I say — normalcy. Just an ordinary woman on a routine errand to pick up an RX for low thyroid. I’m far removed from the multiple trips a week to Walgreens that were necessary during the infection phase, and now that I get my cancer-related maintenance meds through the mail, Walgreens is not a place I make an appearance on a thrice-weekly basis.
I was a happy girl as the pharmacist handed me my new prescription, which will hopefully kick-start my lazy thyroid into gear so I can manage to not collapse at 8 pm every night like a cranky toddler. I was happy and calm and normal, until I swiped my credit card and the little machine asked me if I wanted to donate to the Susan G Komen for the Cure. There was the infamous pink ribbon logo atop neat little boxes offering a $1, a $5, a $10 or a $50 option to add to my pharmacy tab.
And just like that, my ordinary day turned on me.
This, my friends, is why I hate October. This is why pinkwashing makes me see red. This is why I rant and rail in this blogspace about the messed-up system that has deemed an entire month for “awareness.”
I AM AWARE OF BREAST CANCER.
Whew, I feel a little better. I wanted to do that in Walgreens yesterday, but I did not. I did not curse, stomp my feet, smash a single thing, or whack a single person. And for that I would like a medal. Or a trophy. Or a cold beer.
I’m glad that the grand poohbahs who run the Walgreens corporation place an emphasis on charity. I like charity. I think charity is a good thing. But come on, does it have to be Komen, and does it have to be so in my face all month long?? In all fairness, it’s possible that Walgreens does shove other charities down customers’ throats in other months of the year and this particular customer hasn’t noticed. But I’ve swiped my card at the pharmacy window many, many, many times at Walgreens and never been accosted by a “donate now” screen on the little machine. I’m quite certain I was swiping my card through that same machine many times the last 2 Octobers and did not see Komen with its hand out and its “Remember you had cancer, lady” banner flying.
Trevor and I had a lively discussion last night, and again this morning, about the whole pinkwashing/Pinktober/Komen/awareness issue. The course of the conversation ran from why all the pink makes me crazy, how unfair it seems that other cancers don’t get so much attention and hype, how the awareness idea has gone wrong, and which causes are worthy of pink dollars. The consensus was this: the time for awareness has long come and gone. We are all well aware of breast cancer. Komen did great things for breast cancer, and the awareness, in the early days. Members of the pink ribbon club owe Komen a debt of gratitude, IMHO, for de-stigmatizing the disease and for making it culturally acceptable to talk about breasts in a medical context. But there are many, many other deserving and hard-working charities that do more actual good for the women and men who suffer from breast cancer. I’m happy to see that some of those causes are gaining attention and getting a piece, or a few crumbs, of the Komen pie. However, we have a long way to go, which is why I’m compelled to yell my head off in this little blog about things like how precious little of Komen’s huge budget actually goes toward research. How infuriating the pinkwashing pandemic is to those of us who’ve walked miles and miles in pink shoes. How the blatant sexualizing of breast cancer makes me want to throw up and punch someone at the same time. How seeing a grown woman in a “Save the Tatas” shirt causes me to go all Serena Williams on her in the grocery store.
This is the reality of October for breast cancer survivors/warriors/victims/patients. And it stinks. I find myself counting the days until this month ends. That it’s also the month in which my sweet mama died from the insidious ovarian cancer that stalked her for years just adds to the misery. What I wouldn’t give for one day, just one day, in which cancer didn’t smack me — and millions others like me — in the face. Even on an ordinary day, cancer has the ability to knock me senseless and dare me to right myself and keep on keepin’ on, yet again. Cancer is such a bitch.
It’s not just an excuse to go postal or blow off some steam, it really is making me crazy. The prolific presence of Pinktober is making me nuts. I’m seeing red (of which pink is a derivative, I suppose). The other day, a woman in the grocery store was sporting one of the worst pink offenders, IMHO, the “Save the Tatas” shirt. I saw her and her offending shirt in the produce aisle and felt a sick feeling in my stomach. I was barely in the store and was already being thrust into the belly of the beast. Just walking in the store, I was accosted by a huge display of “awareness” crap — flower arrangements, helium-filled balloons, potholders, even pink-ribbon bedecked cakes, for cryin’ out loud. Sheesh.
Do those of us who have tangled with this damn disease really need to run the gauntlet of reminders of said disease just to get into the grocery store? Sheesh.
Maybe the display of pink junk that greeted me at the store set me up so that when I saw the “Save the Tatas” shirt, I was primed and ready for a tussle. I tried to be respectful. I did. I entered into the conversation with every intention of getting her point of view. I’m curious, genuinely curious, as to why a grown woman would sport such a message across her chest. So I pointed to her shirt as our paths crossed by the giant pile of pumpkins (which thankfully had not been painted pink). I asked her if she’d had breast cancer. Just curious. She said no, she has not had breast cancer. Oh, so you know someone who has? I asked. No, but she bought the shirt to support breast cancer awareness.
Ah, yes, “awareness.” More “awareness.” The “awareness” we all so desperately need.
The interrogation continued as I asked her if she was aware of how buying the shirt helps, and what, in her opinion, does “awareness” even mean? She didn’t really have an answer for that. Huh.
I pressed on, like a dog with a bone, and asked if she was aware of which charity received proceeds from the purchase of that shirt. Again, no answer. At this point, she was probably wondering how to contact security in the grocery store. I concluded our little chat by telling her that I have had breast cancer, and I do know many other women who have as well, and that those of us in the pink ribbon club don’t care for those shirts because some of us were put in the unpopular position, through no fault of our own, of not being able to “Save our Tatas,” and that seeing such messages serve as a stark and unwelcome reminder of that most unpleasant fact.
She said she’d never thought about that. She was not aware of that.
I bet she’s also not aware of the fact that once you lose your tatas, each and every glance downward or glimpse in a mirror is a smack in the face. That even after reconstruction — or multiple reconstructions — those tatas will never be the same. Some women end up with a version they like better. Some end up with a version that makes them sad each and every time they see that new, not-so-improved version.
She and I parted ways, me feeling marginally better for having unburdened myself, her probably feeling like she needed to go home and lie down. Hopefully she went home and threw that damned shirt in the garbage, where it belongs.
Then I hear that our local professional soccer team, the Houston Dynamo, is hosting an “awareness” event of their own tomorrow. The first 5,000 fans at the Breast Cancer Awareness Match will score a mini pink soccer ball. Sweet.
Not so sweet.
Tell me, please, anyone, what the scantily-clad cheerleader in the pink attire has to do with breast cancer? Or is that what it takes to get people to attend the event? Questions, people–I have questions!
I had to dig pretty hard to find any info on the actual event. While these images are splashed all over the web, details on what the event really is all about remain elusive. The Dynamo website shows a much less exciting image:
But when I clicked on the link to bobby boots breast cancer/Dynamo Charities, I got nowhere. The computer told me that the page I sought could not be found. Bummer. My next question: is the bobby boots breast cancer image above, with the philanthropic player (who I assume is Bobby) and the soccer-cleat-wearing pink ribbon, that much less effective than the perky cheerleader in her push-up bra? Do people really care less about this dreaded disease if it’s marketed without actual images of breasts?
Great, here we go again.
This time, I didn’t accost the person sporting the offending message because the light turned green. But I wanted to. I wanted to say, Can you imagine in your wildest dreams putting sticker on your car that says “balls! support testicular cancer research!” Or “ovaries! egg-makers or silent killers?” No, me neither. As the shirt says, It’s all about the boobies.
It certainly isn’t “all about the boobies” — it’s about a woman’s life, and how BC threatens and too often takes her life. I’m still waiting for an explanation of how any of this boobie culture makes any difference in the “fight” against breast cancer. If you see a guy wearing a shirt like this, does it enact any change whatsoever in the BC arena?
I wonder how he would feel if I wore a shirt saying “PROSTATES make me happy”? I can’t even find an image of such a shirt because guess what — it doesn’t exist! No, instead the prostate cancer “awareness” shirts look like this:
“I Wear Blue for My Dad” conveys a slightly different message than “Save Second Base.” It says the focus is on the person, not the body part. The take-away message here is that sexualizing a devastating disease does nothing for those who suffer from it.
Well, wait a sec — I take that back. Sexualizing a devastating disease does do something for those who suffer from it. It makes them feel bad. Really bad. It makes them mad. Really mad. It makes them want to accost random people in the grocery store or at the bank and set them straight. It makes them have to confront the fact that at this very moment, they may be crossing that bridge from “survivor” with NED to stage IV without a cure. I will never, ever forget the feeling of utter fear when the first oncologist I consulted said once a cancer comes back, no matter what stage it was upon original diagnosis, the recurrence sends you straight to stage IV and you’re considered incurable. Not that you’re going to die from it, as many stage IV cancers can be managed, but treatment is ongoing, as in, for the rest of your life (however long that will be).
That, my friends, is the reality of breast cancer. Not a cutesy slogan. Not a titillating (pun intended) t-shirt. Not an overtly sexual bumper sticker. It’s not about the boobies. It’s about my life.
Of course it got my attention, amidst the heaps of junk mail, because it’s pink and because when I see a pink ribbon, my brain immediately goes into fight or flight mode as visions of Komen’s money-grubbing dance in my head.
Ok, that’s a bit harsh; Komen isn’t just about money-grubbing. But Pinktober does that to me. I jump to conclusions and get all snarky.
I sat down to read this pink piece of mail, expecting to roll my eyes at yet another meaningless and offensive bit of “awareness” propaganda. Plus, the headline imploring me to put myself first made me think I had free reign to be totally selfish and say, go get a mani-pedi instead of cooking dinner for my people. I had to read more!
Sucked in by the pink haze and the make-me-be-naughty headline, I read on. Page 2 asked a pressing question:
Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I did know that. I also know that mammograms aren’t all that effective at detecting a lump in one’s breast, as I’d been having a mammo every year and at various levels for 5 years before my lump was detected, and even then, it wasn’t detected by a mammo at all but rather by my uber-vigilant OB-GYN, who I credit with saving my life, or at least saving me from a much more protracted and undoubtedly less pleasant cancer “journey.”
Oh, boy, there goes the snark again.
I love the images used in this: the radiantly healthy, young, smiling patient with her gown perfectly draped around her non-cancer-infested body. The state-of-the art screening equipment. The competent and in-control technician. And last but not least, the perfectly round, plump, healthy breast on the screen.
Now I’ve moved straight from snarky to sad, and I’m only on page 2.
Page 3 gets a little more serious, but I’m still sad. That image of the round, healthy breast stays with me. I like that page 3 imparts a serious note, taking care to provide a few snippets of facts & figures to prod one but not scare the bejeezus out of one. The sympathetic tone of, “We know you haven’t scheduled your mammo and we understand, you’re busy taking care of everyone under the sun” is really effective. It’s also very reassuring the way the text suggests “Hey, if the worst does happen and the mammo we suggested you schedule shows that you do in fact have breast cancer, it’s ok; you’re good. We caught it early so you’ll survive.” (You’ll survive, but your life, your wallet, your mind, and most of all, your body will never be the same.)
It goes on to list the signs & symptoms of breast cancer, just in case you aren’t sure. And another suggestion to schedule that mammo today. I love the line about how it won’t cost anything but time. I guess they decided against full disclosure, and nixed mentioning that the smooshing of those nice round breasts is uncomfortable, and that the hospital smell and presence of nightmare-inducing germs everywhere may make you want to run screaming from the building, it might freak out the intended audience and one might decide to chuck the pretty pink pamphlet onto the recycle pile without a backward glance.
I did a double-take at the statistic at the bottom of the page: Did I know that BC claims last year totaled $4.3 million? No, I didn’t know that. That’s a lot of cake.
At first blush, I thought: what kind of nutter is running the accounting office, if they don’t know that I’m one of those claimants? How can they overlook the fact that I’m likely responsible for a quarter of their 2011 claims costs? I’d think that my name is at the top of the list, perhaps with a yellow highlight or maybe an alarm bell that rings, or who knows, a nuclear-reactor type meltdown when my name and ID number are associated with yet another costly claim for United Health Care and Baker Hughes. It’s been a while since I’ve kept an eye on the amount of my claims, but it’s safe to say that it’s up there. Not crazy expensive, like the dresses Ann Romney continues to wear for public appearances, seemingly clueless to the fact that this thing called the Internet exists and it’s easy to check on which designer created her frock and how much it cost, all while she and Mitten claim to be regular folks who don’t consider themselves filthy rich.
Oh good grief, the snark is back. Let me go back and look at that sweet image of the round, healthy, never-to-be-seen-again-on-my-body breast.
Ok, all better.
Thankfully, before I could call the health care PR folks and cuss them out for sending me–me, of all people–a mailing asking if I knew how much my claims had cost them, the Hubs saved me from embarrassing myself and owing a hard-working corporate soul an apology. Just as I was getting really worked up about how in blue blazes could they NOT KNOW that I’ve made hundreds of thousands of dollars in claims because of breast cancer, the Hubs reminded me that we didn’t have United Health Care during the shitstorm of mastectomy, infection, hospitalization, endless labwork, multiple stabs at diagnosing that damned infection, surgery, surgery, surgery, hospitalization, not one but two infectious-disease teams, at-home IV antibiotics, debridement, debridement, home health care, more debridement, more at-home antibiotics, wound vac, the Big Dig aka DIEP reconstruction, ICU hospitalization, more antibiotics, 2 revisions to said reconstruction, and at least 100 visits to the plastic surgeon, yadda yadda yadda.
United Health Care got me once the bulk of my spending frenzy was done. No wonder they send me such nice, pretty mail. Whew, I am SO glad I didn’t get on the horn and issue a blistering diatribe to the first person to answer the 800 number. That would have been soooo embarrassing.
I guess I should be moved by the fact that United Health Care is looking out for the many women who are eligible for a smash-&-snap but who didn’t schedule one last year. And I am. Yes, I know that it’s in UHC’s best interest to have their insured women get their mammos, because screening is cheaper than mastectomies and chemo and radiation. I do like the gentle statistics employed in this publication–nothing too in-my-face, not all gloom & doom, no hint of “do this now or burn in BC hell.” I appreciate the assumption that I’m a grown woman who can decide for myself; personally I’m not one who needs to be told twice when it comes to doing something necessary but unpleasant, but I can forgive the repeated pleas to schedule that mamno now, because not everyone shares my “get ‘er done” mentality, and most women have less flexibility in their schedules than I.
This piece of mail struck the right balance of “you need to do this even thought it might uncover your biggest fear and thrust you headlong into a medical nightmare” and “that said, we’re here and are gonna take care of you.” I give high marks to the copywriters who straddled the idea of scaring us enough to schedule that mammo but not keeping us awake at night wondering what it will be like.
Before I was diagnosed, I didn’t give much thought to breast cancer. Sure, I saw the pink ribbons everywhere and thought the women whose bald heads were under cover of a pink bandana are mighty brave (I still do think that, BTW). Even when I got picked for the melanoma lottery, and even when my sweet mama died a not-so-pleasant death from a reproductive cancer at the still-too-young age of 67, I didn’t think much about breast cancer. I still didn’t think much about it when my awesome OB-GYN learned of my sweet mama’s death and said let’s go ahead and get you started with a baseline mammogram, even though you’re nearly 5 years away from the recommended screening age. Every year my mammo came back funny (not funny ha-ha but funny peculiar, because there’s not a damn thing funny about a funny mammo). I still didn’t think about breast cancer. The radiologists chalked it up to dense breast tissue and said, let’s see what’s going on next year. Then the next year, the images still looked funny, and maybe even a bit more unusual, so I saw a breast specialist and endured a series of biopsies. And still, I didn’t think about breast cancer. That breast specialist said the biopsies didn’t show anything overtly cancerous, and I was young for the cancer beast to come calling, so let’s just keep an eye on it and continue the annual screenings. Even then, I didn’t think much about breast cancer.
Fast forward to the present day, as I sit with a well-done mailing imploring me to schedule a mammogram.
Now I feel the need to call United Health Care, not to cuss anyone out, but to tell them thanks for the pretty pink mailing, but to kindly remove me from the distribution list for future mailings. See, I won’t be scheduling a mammogram this year, or any year in the future. Instead, I go see the unflappably darling Dr Dempsey twice a year for a chest and lymph node ultrasound. It’s not a breast ultrasound, because my breasts contain no breast tissue. Nope, they are made of 100 percent belly tissue, and breast tissue and belly tissue look totally different in a mammo. As far as I know, there’s not a smash-and-snap procedure for the belly. In addition to my twice-yearly screening by my favorite breast surgeon, I get to see my cutie-pie oncologist three times a year. Blood work checks my tumor markers and hormone levels, and I submit to a thorough exam and lecture about my champagne habit.
And for that, I’m grateful.
I woke up in a snit this morning. I have been dreading this day for a couple of weeks, from the first glimpse of the ubiquitous pinkwashing that occurs every October. It’s the official start of “Breast Cancer Awareness” Month — quotation marks mine, because I really can’t in all seriousness say that phrase without denoting how absurd the “awareness” idea is. I have a lot of ire toward Pinktober and the pinkwashing of everything from toilet paper to yogurt. As someone who went toe-to-toe with the dreaded disease, I find it offensive that corporations can still hock their wares under the guise of awareness. Is there really anyone on this planet not aware that breast cancer exists? Come on. Enough with the awareness. Try doing something really meaningful, like slashing the pinkwashing advertising budget and cut a check directly to a do-good organization.
I noticed the Pinktober creep starting a couple of weeks ago. As I pushed my grocery cart through the store, filling it with the provisions that keep my family up and running, I saw something awful out of the corner of my eye.
Pink-ribbon saucepans, and water bottles, and plastic containers. Oh great, here we go again. I wonder if any of that wall of pink plastic is BPA free? The studies that link BPA, a common chemical in rigid plastic, to breast cancer, are piling up at an alarming rate.
It gets worse — pink-ribbon hair brushes, so you can brush for the cure. Unless of course you’re undergoing chemo and have no hair. I’m sure the bald BC patients shopping for groceries appreciate the reminder that wait — not only do you have a scary-ass disease, you’re also bald and vulnerable and grappling with negative body image. Thanks, Revlon. This pinkwashed product seems particularly crappy.
I’m lucky I didn’t throw up in my mouth at the first of this year’s crop of pinked-up junk masquerading as charitable fundraising products. I guess the junk is designed to give shoppers a warm-fuzzy feeling about doing something important for the disease that descends upon one in eight women in the U.S. every year. The products themselves make me sick, but the fact that the pinkwashing starts earlier and earlier is really disgusting. As if the Christmas Creep isn’t bad enough, we now must endure the Pinktober Creep as well. Son of a nutcracker.
If buying pinked-up products could cure breast cancer, dontcha think it would’ve by now? Why not cut out the middle-man and send your hard-earned and well-meaning money straight to an organization that can actually do something useful?
Like my friend Jen at ihavebreastcancerblog, who is also blogging about Pinktober, I wore a pink shirt today. Not because I want to commemorate “Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” but because it matched my bright blue Nike shorts with the pink & white stripes, and as I headed to the gym for another grueling post-knee-surgery PT session, I needed the lift that a well-put-together outfit can provide. The pink shirt in question happens to be my survivor shirt from last year’s Race for the Cure. My first — and only — Race for the Cure.
After the gym, I was in the drive-through lane at the bank, and the bank teller was super chatty. I’m all for some friendly chit-chat from a service provider, as long as they can multitask. If they can talk and conduct business, fine with me, chat away. But if they have to stop to chat, uh-uh. Nope. Zip it and get your work done. I don’t want to take time to listen to idle chatter from someone with whom I’m not likely to form a relationship. Does that make me cranky? crotchety? unfriendly? mean? Maybe. But I’m honest. The last thing I want to do is listen to someone blather on while I wait for them to do the job they’re supposed to do. So when the bank teller started chirping about how it’s the perfect day for a convertible, and asking me if I’m working today or just out enjoying the day, I could feel myself getting snippy and impatient. When she asked if I had a good weekend, I was about to turn off the smile and figure out a nice way to say, “Hurry the hell up, lady. Less talking, more working.” Deep breaths, deep breaths.
She noticed my Race for the Cure t-shirt and commented on it. I haven’t worn this shirt since I learned the ugly truth about the Susan G Komen organization and how precious little SGK has done to actually look for, much less find, a cure. Once the SGK-Planned Parenthood debacle occurred, I decided that SGK would not get one dime from me, ever again. I did the Race for the Cure exactly once, to see what it was all about. It was a nice experience, but I’d rather send my $40 registration fee someplace in which it has a shot at making some real progress instead of lining SGK founder Nancy Brinker’s pockets and/or perpetuating the farce that SGK is committed to ending this wretched disease.
The chatty teller asked me if I was going to do the Race for the Cure again, and I said no. Sometimes I wonder why I’m compelled to answer so honestly rather than just tow the party line and say what people want to hear. Then I realize that wondering something like that is akin to wondering why the sky is blue instead of green, and that it’s utterly pointless to expect things like that to be different. Anyhoo, I told the teller that no, I will not be doing the Race for the Cure again, and of course I proceeded to tell her why.
She may be somewhat sorry she chose to be chatty with me today.
She got a bit of an earful. A well-reasoned and calm earful, but an earful none the less. I explained that before being inducted into the Pink Ribbon Club, I knew Susan G Komen for the Cure was the leading breast cancer organization, and that it wasn’t until I acquainted myself with more than just the superficiality of SGK and its pink-ribbon-bedecked world that I realized that the group wasn’t exactly working hard to find a cure. Silly me, I thought that if “for the Cure” was part of the group’s official name, so much so that it would sue others for harmlessly using it for their own fundraising, that the group might actually be focused on finding a cure for this disease that had so rudely interrupted my life. Not so with SGK. Instead of funneling the majority of its funds toward finding a cure, it instead chooses to focus the majority of its resources on education and “awareness.” As someone who has walked more than a mile in pink shoes, I can’t abide SGK’s priorities. As stated on its website: “In 1982, that promise [between Susan G Komen and her sister Nancy Brinker] became Susan G. Komen for the Cure® and launched the global breast cancer movement. Today, Susan G. Komen is the boldest community fueling the best science and making the biggest impact in the fight against breast cancer. Thanks to events like the Komen Race for the Cure, we have invested almost $2 billion to fulfill our promise, working to end breast cancer in the U.S. and throughout the world.”
Sounds good, right? But think about it — if SGK is the best of the boldest and has been working toward a cure since 1982, wouldn’t you expect to see more progress? Thirty years. And very little change.
In fact, The American Cancer Society says this about the incidence rate of BC:
• Between 1975 and 1980, incidence was essentially
• Between 1980 and 1987, incidence increased by 4.0%
• Between 1987 and 1994, incidence was essentially
• Between 1994 and 1999, incidence rates increased by
1.6% per year.
• Between 1999 and 2006, incidence rates decreased by
2.0% per year.
It wasn’t until 1999 that BC rates decreased — 20 years after SGK came on the scene — and even then, by 2 percent a year. Does that sound like progress? Does that sound like “for the Cure?” Not so much. I did not whip out the above statistics for the chatty bank teller (I do have some standards, after all, even when I’m ranting to a total stranger through a plexiglass window), but I did tell her that this is why I won’t do another Race for the Cure or support the Susan G Komen for the Cure. She did ask, after all.
She said she had no idea. She thought that SGK did all kinds of good things for breast cancer, and that they raised a lot of money to find a cure. I said she’s right about part of that: Komen does raise a lot of money, but precious little of it goes toward the research needed to find the cure. She asked me how much of Komen’s money goes toward research, and when I said the best estimates are no more than 19 percent, she was stunned. Perhaps I should have felt a bit badly for bursting her bubble, but instead I felt triumphant when she asked, if not Komen, then who?
Cue the choir and release the confetti bombs!
I told her that personally, I like The Rose right here in Houston, and applaud the efforts to make a real difference in the lives of women with breast cancer, especially those who are traditionally underserved by screening, prevention, and treatment. I also like Dr Susan Love’s group, the Dr Susan Love Research Foundation. The DSLRF is determined to find the cause of breast cancer, not just tie a pink ribbon around the idea of it. Dr Love has been oft quoted as saying, “The key to ending breast cancer is to learn how to stop it before it starts.” She also says:
“I have spent my whole life working in the field of breast cancer. At this point I am frustrated that we are still doing the same treatments with about the same results as when I started thirty years ago. Now that we can get to where breast cancer starts we have the opportunity to eradicate it. I am excited and impatient. The road is clear. We can go slowly or quickly, but everyday that we delay another 592 women will be diagnosed and 110 will die. The cost is too high to hesitate. This is our job not our daughters’, granddaughters’, nieces’ or nephews’. We can do it and we have to do it!”
Thanks to The DSLRF’s focus on research, we’ve moved from throwing around “for the Cure” to actually working to figure out and eliminate the disease. I like Dr Love’s idea of eradication much better than Komen’s “idea” for the cure.
Now is a great time to mention Dr Love’s latest initiative: The HOW Study. To get the word out about The HOW Study, Dr Love is encouraging us to Blog with Love. Today’s the day for the third-annual blogger initiative, and I’m all in! The HOW Study, along with The Army of Women, is in my opinion much more viable and holds much potential to enact real change. I’ve participated in several Army of Women studies and will continue to do so every chance I get. I encourage everyone reading this to check out The Army of Women and see if there’s a study that applies to you.
The HOW Study is a ground-breaking study for women (and men) who have no history of breast cancer. See, the majority of women diagnosed with BC don’t have a family history of or clinical risk factors for the disease. Dr Love wants to figure out what causes the disease so we can figure out how to stop the disease. Dr Love’s website says that 280,000 women were diagnosed with BC last year. Of those, 40,000 women will die from the disease this year. You can help turn those numbers around by joining The HOW Study.
I’ve just decided I’m ditching my Race for the Cure shirt and am going to get this shirt instead:
I got this letter from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Not sure what gave him the idea that I’m a football fan, but I won’t fault him too much since he’s trying to do a good thing. Maybe he didn’t get the memo that my heart belongs to the Red Sox (my broken heart, that is). Maybe he did get the memo that I have a big mouth and write a little blog about all things breast cancer. Or maybe it was just a mass mailing that coincidentally landed in my mailbox just as I’m sorting through conflicting feelings about the pinkwashing that occurs every October.
Despite my previous grumpiness about all things pink in the month of October, I must admit I rather like seeing the football players wearing a dash of pink. Not because I think it’s going to change the world or find a cure for this damned disease, but because I enjoy the incongruity of a gigantic linebacker who could crush someone like me between his fingers wearing pink.
I could be super cheesy and say that if one woman decides to go for a mammogram because she saw Tom Brady wearing hot pink gloves, and if that one woman discovers breast cancer that would have otherwise stealthily grown into something that would kill her, then the NFL campaign is a success.
I will say that I’m glad the NFL campaign is about taking specific action to protect yourself from this dreaded disease, instead of trying to use the pink ribbon to sell a product. That sits much better with me. Nothing like a pink-ribbon-bedecked can of dog food to say let’s wipe out breast cancer.
To NFL Fans:
On behalf of the National Football League, please join us in supporting the NFL’s “A Crucial Catch” campaign in October for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This is the third season in which NFL teams, coaches, officials and players will wear pink in recognition of the fight against breast cancer.
Just about everyone knows someone who has been affected by breast cancer. That is why the NFL is proud to join thousands of others committed to fighting this terrible disease.
Throughout October, all NFL teams will celebrate survivors, visit patients at hospitals and turn their stadiums pink to show our enduring support. Alongside our partners at the American Cancer Society, we will emphasize the importance of prevention by encouraging all women over the age of 40 to get a yearly mammogram. We know that annual screenings can, and do, save lives.
Thanks to the passion of NFL fans, we have the collective strength as a league to connect with millions of people and make a positive difference. Please support the American Cancer Society’s programs to help people stay well, get well, and find a cure. We can fight back against a disease that has taken far too much from too many for too long.
There are several ways you can participate in “A Crucial Catch.” Visit nfl.com/pink for the resources and tools you can use to get involved.
An annual screening saves lives. Let’s spread the word.
On April 29, 2002, the woman who created Barbie died. I guess I missed the news that day. A New York Times op-ed written about Ruth Handler said that “perhaps Barbie’s most significant attribute is her capacity to make people wonder what she would be like if she were really human. But to imagine Barbie as a real woman is to imagine her subject to time itself. It is to imagine her with real politics, real worries, a constant struggle with the memory of her own once ideal figure. Above all, it is to imagine her with a voice.”
I went to a play this past Friday night called “I Am Barbie,” and we no longer have to imagine Barbie with a voice. She spoke, via actress Ivy Castle-Rush in the titular role, and she had lots to say about her life & times.
Notes from the playwright, Walton Beacham, say:
“Barbie celebrates her 50th birthday by reminiscing about her careers, her relationship with Ken and other characters from her life, who express their own opinions about Barbie. An important motif is Barbie’s breasts as cultural icon, symbol and statement of feminine status, power and vulnerability. Two of the characters, Midge’s mother and Barbie’s creator Ruth, develop breast cancer.”
More on that in a sec.
The play was my introduction to Ruth Handler. I must admit, I’d never given Barbie’s creator much thought. Although more than 1 billion Barbies have been sold in more than 150 countries, and although Barbie even has her own Hall of Fame, in Palo Alto, CA, I never thought much about her. I have bought Barbie dolls, clothes, and accessories as birthday gifts for Macy’s friends, but knew nothing of Barbie’s story or that of her creator.
I do now.
Barbie was created in 1959 for Handler’s daughter, Barbara. (And yes, Ken is named for Handler’s son, which is kind of creepy when you think about Barbie & Ken’s relationship. Ewwww.)
Based on a German precursor named Lilli, Handler intended the Barbie doll to help girls “play out their dreams of adolescence and beyond,” hence Barbie’s trajectory from going to prom to going to college to getting married to going to the Moon. She’s embraced every fashion trend that’s come along, and she’s dabbled in nearly every career imaginable. In her 1994 autobiography Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story, Handler wrote: ”My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”
I suspect that Handler was talking about more than just Barbie’s wardrobe.
I wonder, though, if Handler had any idea of how wildly popular Barbie would become. As the co-founder of the Mattel Toy Company, Handler clearly had a head for business, and could be considered a visionary in terms of the range that Barbie ended up encompassing. Did Handler know that Barbie would become a flashpoint for debates in psychology, cultural politics, feminism, fashion, women’s rights, and body image, just to name a few? Did she consider the firestorm of controversy Barbie could ignite, for example, just by her Teen Talk version uttering the phrase “Math class is tough?” That one really got the feminists going, and reinforced the stereotype that girls aren’t so great at math.
Well, I didn’t play with Barbies much as a little girl, and thankfully escaped her attempts to sway my feminist tendencies or influence my attitude toward math. In fact, my next-door neighbor growing up is a female statistics professor who taught classes, wrote textbooks, and became the chair of the math department. She gave me a tote bag once that says “Anything boys can do, girls can do better.” When my middle-school speech class had to present a debate-style speech, mine was on the ERA, and I carried my notes in the girl-power tote bag. Take that, Teen Talk Barbie.
I missed the memo, too, on Barbie dictating body image. Like most of the world, I certainly have always thought her proportions are ridiculous — a real-world scale determined she would be 5 foot 6 with a 39-21-33 figure. Her internal organs wouldn’t even fit inside that package, for pete’s sake. Although she did undergo a makeover in 2000 to eliminate the waistline “seam” that made her poseable and reduced both her bust and her hips, she’s still a pretty unrealistic feminine ideal. However, it never occurred to me to let a doll determine how I feel about myself.
Maybe missing that memo allowed me to cope with losing my breasts to cancer, just as Handler did in 1970. She was diagnosed and underwent a bilateral mastectomy the year after I was born. To say that diagnostic and surgical progression has been made since then might be the understatement of the year. Facing her diagnosis the same way she approached the toy business — aggressively and successfully — Handler took on cancer awareness and made it her mission to ensure that women who joined the pink ribbon club after her had an easier time with it.
See, Handler faced breast cancer at a time in which real women had fewer choices than Barbie; the Women’s Health & Cancer Act that required insurance companies to cover reconstruction wasn’t enacted until 1988. Handler faced her post-mastectomy body-image demons head-on. And, dissatisfied with the limited prostheses options available at the time, she created her own.
Handler developed the Nearly Me breast form and founded Nearly Me Technologies, Inc in the mid-1970s after she discovered that the breast forms available at the time were “not comfortable, realistic, beautiful, or easily purchased,” according to the company’s website. Handler said, “When I conceived Barbie, I believed it was important to a little girl’s self-esteem to play with a doll that has breasts. Now I find it even more important to return that self-esteem to women who have lost theirs.”
”Until now,” Handler said in 1977, ”every breast [prosthesis] that was sold was used interchangeably for the right or the left side. There has never been a shoemaker who made one shoe and forced you to put both your right and your left foot in it.” She’s right about that.
Keep in mind that Handler was operating in an era in which there was little talk about breast cancer. She was determined to change that, however, and worked tirelessly toward early detection as well as helping post-mastectomy women reclaim a sense of normalcy. Handler personally fit First Lady Betty Ford with her prosthesis after Ford’s mastectomy in 1974. In promoting Nearly Me prostheses, Handler would unbutton her shirt during interviews and publicity jaunts and challenge a reporter or photographer to feel her breasts to determine which was real. Handler said that with high-quality prostheses, “a woman could wear a regular brassiere and blouse, stick her chest out and be proud.”
In talking about her two careers–creator of both Barbie and Nearly Me–Handler was known to say, ”I’ve lived my life from breast to breast.”
She knew what she was doing when she hired retired Mattel workers to design the Nearly Me prostheses. The same people who created Barbie’s breasts went to work, using similar manufacturing processes and materials. They discovered that using a polyurethane outer skin over silicone gel provided the structure and shape to match a real breast. And, just like with Barbie, no nipples were necessary.
So how does all this fit into a play? Very carefully. A review of “I Am Barbie” said that “the trickiest aspect is Beacham’s decision to include Ruth’s struggle with breast cancer as a recurring theme. One can see why Beacham felt it important to include this part of the real Ruth Handler’s story, relevant to the play’s theme of women’s body image.”
A breast cancer diagnosis, while dreadful, is real. Good things happen to bad people, and even Barbie gets the blues. Beacham did us all a favor by including this theme in the play. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to face heavy subjects, and perhaps some audience members felt a bit squirmy as they saw Ruth’s and Midge’s struggles portrayed. With all the “pink-a-fying” and prettying up of the disease, it’s nice to see a gritty and realistic version.
So thank you, Walton Beacham for not shying away from breast cancer’s impact on women. And thank you, Ruth Handler. For inspiring a playwright to tackle the very real theme of breast cancer and body image. For proving once again that life does not end with a breast cancer diagnosis. For saying “that’s not good enough” to the options available post-mastectomy. Oh, and for creating Barbie, too.
P.S. Of course there’s a Pink Ribbon Barbie, whose marketing material says she’s “wearing a pink gown with a signature pink ribbon pinned to her shoulder, Pink Ribbon Barbie doll can help open a dialogue with those affected by breast cancer, while supporting this worthy cause!” She can be yours for the low, low price of $78.99 at amazon.com.