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.
A woman I know from the gym told me that when she saw that the NFL has gone pink for Breast Cancer “Awareness” Month, she thought of me. I smiled politely and said thanks; she’s about the age my mom would have been had she lived, so I want to be respectful. I’m never quite sure how to handle this. On one hand, I don’t want to be the poster girl for breast cancer. On the other hand, I don’t want to seem ungrateful for an acquaintance’s goodwill and kind thoughts. I always limp along in such encounters, then I flee the scene wondering if I reacted in an acceptable way. But, like so much associated with the cancer “journey,” there’s no road map, no guidebook, no real clue on how to handle this stuff.
At first blush, the NFL going pink to support breast cancer seems like a pretty cool thing. I wrote about it last year, and my first impression was how cute! NFL players in pink cleats, gloves, chin guards, skull caps, and sweatbands was so cute! I took it at face value, not being much of a football fan, and I wasn’t bothered by the coaches’ pink ribbons or pink caps, nor by the refs’ pink whistles or the pink tees on the field. However, another year wiser about the pinkwashing phenomenon and another year exhausted by the “awareness” campaign, I’m thinking it’s not so cute. Some of the players have personal ties to breast cancer, having lost a loved one to or had someone they love affected by the dreaded disease. I give them a pass. Guys like Ravens’ wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who has two aunts who have survived breast cancer. He says that wearing pink shoes and pink gloves “means something. For my aunts to fight through that and beat it, that’s some strong women. So I’ll wear it for them.” Another wide receiver, Kyle Williams of the 49ers, will put on the pink for game days in honor of his grandmother, who died from breast cancer in 2005.
If it were just about the National Football League’s largesse and compassion toward a disease that kills nearly 40,000 women in this country every year, I’d say, that’s cool. If it were about players showing their love and admiration for friends and family members who’ve battled breast cancer, I’d be behind them. Even if it were about the NFL designating breast cancer as the charity du jour and earmarking some of the $9.5 million dollars earned in revenue last year, I’m good with that.
However, it’s never that simple, and because breast cancer is the “sexy” cancer, the “glamour” disease, there’s something inherently rotten in the pink plethora splattered all over pro football stadiums across the country. Because breast cancer involves well, yeah, breasts, it easily grabs everyone’s attention, and like so many other things that have been pinkwashed in the name of “awareness,” it means a breast cancer patient or survivor can’t even watch a football game without being smacked in the face, yet again, with the reminder of this damned disease.
In trying to nail down exactly what it is about the pinkwashing of the NFL that bugs me, I came up with this. First and foremost is the emphasis on breast cancer “awareness.” Perhaps the Vikings cheerleader pictured below wants and/or needs everyone to be “aware” of her breasts (BTW, the Denver Broncos cheerleaders are sponsored by Dr Ben Lee, a plastic surgeon who specializes in breast augmentation, and Laura Vikmanis, a Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader, says in her memoir that at least half of the 36 cheerleaders have implants, and a third of those without are planning to get them, and that there was much dissension in the cheerleaders’ locker room between the haves vs the have nots. A Philadelphia plastic surgeon cited Vikmanis’s book on his website in relation to the Philidelphia Eagles cheerleader tryouts. He commented on the rigors of NFL cheerleading: “Twice-a-week weigh ins and the grueling conditioning routines make it hard for women to maintain adequate fat reserves to have proportionate and shapely breasts, so breast implants are often the only way for women on the squad to remain both fit and feminine.” Breast implants are the only way for an NFL cheerleader to look fit and feminine? Wow. We certainly wouldn’t want women out there running around with disproportionate and unshapely breasts, would we?)
The NFL’s “A Crucial Catch” program aims to increase breast cancer “awareness” but I can’t help but ask why we’re so fixated on awareness, when being aware of the disease does nothing to cure it. Why does the program exhort women older than 40 to get an annual mammogram, when mammograms don’t save lives? Does anyone really find the “early detection” message touted by programs such as this to be effective? Sports Illustrated writer Peter King is of like mind, and after he tweeted “Please. Not pink for a month, NFL. A week, great. But a month?” he found himself on the receiving end of a lot of criticism, with people responding outright hatefully. Writer Mary Elizabeth Williams came to King’s defense on salon.com. She pointed out that it’s possible to hate the disease as well as the commodification. And, as she astutely points out, “because if we didn’t see pink on the football field throughout October, how else would any of us know that it’s breast cancer awareness month? How would we be aware?” Breast Cancer Action executive director Karuna Jaggar adds “We don’t need more awareness; we need solutions. We’re looking for progress that makes a difference in addressing and ending this breast cancer epidemic.” Does anything about A Crucial Catch speak to the breast cancer epidemic?
Secondly, show me the money. Several groups have had a little look-see into the NFL’s A Crucial Catch program and found that while it may be eye-catching, all that pink isn’t doing all that much good for the actual disease or the people suffering from it. Proceeds from the NFL pinking it up go to The American Cancer Society, which sounds pretty good, but Business Week discovered that just 5 percentage of sales will make its way to the ACS. According to Business Week, for every $100 in sales of pink products, $3.54 goes toward research while the NFL keeps approximately $45. Considering the NFL’s healthy revenue last year, and the crazy salaries NFL employees make, this seems particularly stingy. An NFL spokesperson countered the Business Week report by saying that while the league does not dispute the numbers above, it does not profit from the sale of pink merchandise, but that whatever money isn’t donated to the ACS is spent covering the cost of the Crucial Catch program, which is designed to increase “awareness.” Ah yes, the same type of accounting that caused the Susan G Komen for the Cure to fall out of favor with the very women it’s supposed to be helping. Spending such a disproportional amount of money on “awareness” instead of research is nothing short of irresponsible.
My third issue with the NFL going pink may be unpopular, but the fact is, the NFL doesn’t seem overly concerned with women’s issues or our bodies. Exhibit A: the cheerleaders. What exactly does a bunch of tarted-up, implant-sporting women gyrating on the sidelines have to do with the game? Do the fans in the stadium need to be encouraged to cheer for their team? Do the viewers at home require a bit of eye candy to break up the monotony of seeing big, sweaty men up close and in high def? More importantly, did anyone from the NFL think about how breast cancer survivors might feel seeing the NFL cheerleaders decked out in pink boy shorts and itty bitty tshirts that can barely contain all the breastly goodness of those augmented cheerleaders? Does the NFL think that breast cancer survivors need yet another hit to their flagging body images and fledgling self-esteem after radiation mutilates our breasts and surgeries remove them altogether?
Exhibit B: the league is historically soft on players who’ve been charged with crimes against women. Columnist Maura Kelly wrote about this for the New York Daily News, citing cases such as the one against Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor, in which he admitted to raping a 16-year-old girl in 2010. And that of famed quarterback Brett Favre being accused by more than one woman of sexual harassment. And that of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger being accused of sexual assault by two different women. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth got handsy with a waitress last year and pleaded no contest to her charges of sexual assault. None of these players received more than a slap on the wrist from the National Football League. Yet, during the month of October, the league wants me to believe that it cares about me and million of women across the country? Throw a bunch of pink on the field and call it good?
Nice try, NFL, but I’m not buying it. It’s going to take more than pink accessories and lip service about the importance of screening to convince me that the league really cares about women.
How many more days until October ends?
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.