I am a cancer survivor. I was 21 when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma. People told me it was the "good" cancer since it is treatable in the early stages--with 6 rounds of extremely toxic and high doses of chemotherapy, followed up with 17 radiation treatments. I celebrate being cancer-free for 8 years this month. I celebrate every year, because every year I'm still happy to be alive and thriving.
October has also been deemed Breast Cancer Awareness month. I find myself surrounded by pink ribbons and photos of people wearing pink in support of the cause. I don't wear a pink ribbon in October, donate money to the Susan G. Komen foundation, or do 5Ks for breast cancer research.
Just typing that last sentence makes me feel like a huge jerk. The thing is, I'm actually a nice person! I love to support research and prevention for all types of cancers. And for the record, I think cancer survivors are incredible people.
I’m a woman. I had cancer. But when I see these events and the color pink in October, the thought that comes to mind is "that's not my cancer." Here are some reasons why this month makes me a bit uncomfortable:
- Breast Cancer Awareness month makes me feel excluded. That's not my cancer, and that doesn’t leave a lot of room to celebrate the fact that I survived an incredibly scary time in my life.
- Cancer impacted my identity as a woman. Breast cancer has become known as "the" female cancer (although we know it impacts male-identified folks as well). I am female-identified, and having cancer gave me the opportunity to examine some of the things I associate with being a woman. For example, when I was diagnosed and knew I would be enduring several rounds of chemotherapy (and receive a drug that looked like red kool-aid and guaranteed my hair would fall out), I threw myself a head-shaving party and blasted Ani Difranco and cried and laughed and hugged my friends while my sister and my best friend cut my hair off. Losing my hair was terrifying. I was afraid I wouldn’t look like a woman anymore. My cancer had nothing to do with my reproductive organs, but it trampled my concepts of femininity and beauty. And here we are, celebrating the women who have survived cancer (who should be celebrated, because it really sucks to have cancer)—and I’m not one of them, because that’s not my cancer.
- My cancer was rare, people don’t know about it, and it’s hard for them to identify. If I said I had breast cancer, I imagine folks would know what to do with that. Most people don’t know what lymphoma is or the role of lymph in our bodies and immune systems.
- The other problematic piece is the way the the color pink marginalizes folks who have experienced breast cancer but do not identify as female. Men get breast cancer, too. So do transgender people. So do people who are non-binary.
- As a cancer survivor, I appreciate that folks want to help others. That's amazing! That's one of the many reasons I have a deep faith that people are good in their hearts. But I get confused (as I imagine many people do) about where the money goes after the walk is done, or what happens when you wear pink to work one day. How is it helping your friend who has breast cancer? Is it supporting that person in getting to and from treatment? Is it funding the portion that insurance won't cover (up to tens of thousands of dollars per treatment)? Is it helping that person get back on their feet after being out of work for several months? The answer is no. And that's hard to hear. The other part that's hard to hear is that it's not helping you or your friends prevent or detect cancer at an early stage. But you know who is? Planned Parenthood. That's a conversation for another blog, though.
- Focusing solely on one type of cancer that impacts women is not addressing the whole problem, not to mention that breast cancer is not the number one killer of most women: lung cancer is (breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in Hispanic women, per the CDC--but Hispanic women are not the face of Breast Cancer Awareness month either).
As a cancer survivor, here's what I would like to see: inclusivity. The end of "pinkwashing" and a more honest conversation about cancer prevention, like the connection between what we eat and how it makes us feel (and what happens to our bodies when we eat processed foods with abandon for decades in a row). Funding for cancer screenings that are safe and don't increase our chances of getting cancer later. Recognition that my breasts are not the only part of my body at risk for illness, and that I'm a whole person outside of my identity as a female. That we begin to examine the way certain types of cancers are sensationalized (especially breast cancer) and why. That we connect with each other and explore our journeys and how they impact us rather than donating money to something anonymous. And that we can come to a place of radical acceptance of where we have been and be able to say, "oh yes, that's my cancer", and go on to do beautiful, wonderful things in the world that open our hearts and make us grateful to be alive.