The depicted confidence is awe-inspiring. The smiling images of bold women with chic buzz-cuts, practically beatific, in their pink-swathed confidence layered within the pages of a waiting room magazine. Instinctively we smile back at these photos, thinking, how lucky they are to have beaten the monster, right? They stared down the beast that is breast cancer, bound it up in a pink parcel and shipped it to the depths of hell never to be heard from again. Cured. Safe. Healthy. It’s almost like a fairytale; a Grimm fairytale. A grim fairytale.
We made the ugly pretty
Decades ago, in a valiant effort to get women to open up and become comfortable discussing their breasts and breast abnormalities with their spouses, their children, their doctors, a decision was made to “pretty-up” the cancer. Pink became the bespoke color as it was feminine, pure, and above all, non-threatening. Pink is lovely, don’t get me wrong, I’ve been known to rock the hue myself, albeit more of an aging punk-rock goddess shade of fuchsia. I wear it because I’m a member of a sorority, the very best club where no one wants to be a member. Wearing pink is an ingress for me to tell my story and educate and inform others. It’s part and parcel with thriving in this post-a-cancer-lyptic world. But as a fashion executive with an extensive background in color science, had the color representation of breast cancer awareness been up to me, pink would have never been my go-to. Perhaps the dreary mud-brown of a Louis Vuitton bag is more appropriate – A. because it’s not a terribly attractive color and B. because it is damn expensive.
Cancer is hideous. Period. Full stop. If I had pinky toenail cancer I would feel the same way. There is no good cancer. Cancer bisects your body in marks and scars and leaves behind a level of trauma that is utterly incomprehensible to someone that has not been through a cancer diagnosis and treatment. As a breast cancer patient I’ve come to accept that I will never be cured – because after all this racing for the cure, walking for the cure, and shopping for the cure, there is still no cure. Are we aware? Yup, very aware, thank you very much. And sure, we’ve created more accurate screenings, more targeted drug therapies which have in turn given us more long-term survivors … and long-term thrivers with metastatic breast cancer. But a cure? Nope, not yet.
I’ll let you in on a little secret, spying a sea of pink ribbons at the mall, in the town center, or on the door of a doctor’s office can downright freak us out, it can be completely overwhelming. And for the social animal that I am at heart – I stay home a lot in October, at least until the bitter end when the pink ribbons are eclipsed by the black and orange of Halloween ghoulishness. At any time of year, going to routine doctor appointment or having an allergy can send us into a spiral, because the first thing we think of is … what if it’s back? What if the eye doctor sees something suspicious indicative of a brain tumor? What if the dentist mentions concerns of oral cancer? What if the allergist requests more tests because this cough could be caused by something far more sinister than pollen or ragweed? Somehow, I doubt I’m the only survivor who needs anti-anxiety meds to see the podiatrist.
If I were to write an unflinching narrative to match those gauzy pink pictures that permeate the 10th month of the year, it would go something like this …
“In a Queendom of pink skies resides a breed of triumphant women unmatched in strength and power. The fiercest among them disfigure or amputate their breasts in a bid to live. They inject bags of toxic elixirs deep into their veins knowing that it will make them very sick but perhaps stronger too. It’s a chance they are willing to take, they reason, as a mighty laser zaps them repeatedly and into exhaustion. These women put their lives on hold and, as they come around, they find that a downy covering of hair has sprouted upon their once barren scalps. They swipe on some lipstick and move forward, as best they can, with a fragmented life that will be both better and worse than it was before. Fear will always ghost their smiles and hide just behind their shining eyes. Have they adjusted to a new normal? Depends on the day. Are they tired of burying their friends and sisters? Absolutely. These amazing women embrace the present, hope for more time, lean on each other on the dark days and uplift each other in the light. For they carry scars, seen and unseen, with them always.”