Breast cancer is not always pink: a personal tale
Cancer is not always pink: why not all breast cancer survivors want to wear pink ribbons
One cancer patient’s perspective on why cancer is not always pink. We can survive cancer without becoming perpetual “cancer survivors.”
I woke up sore, scared, and hungry the morning after my lumpectomy. The procedure had been a disappointment. I was supposed to go in, have the lump removed, and then take a few shots of radiation. By the start of the spring term, I’d be back in the classroom.
But when I’d come out of the surgery the previous afternoon, the long incision under my left arm had told me the doctor had removed lymph nodes — a sign cancer had spread.
My first reaction had been to swear so loudly that the nurse ran for the doctor. My mood hadn’t improved any in the hours since.
Although in despair, I was starving, and even hospital pancakes sounded good. As I waited for breakfast to arrive, an older woman barged into my room carrying a large bag crammed full of papers.
The visit of the pink cancer lady
“Hi, I’m Maggie, the Pink Cancer Lady!” she chirped as she reached out her free hand.
I took it reluctantly. I wasn’t a morning person, even when I wasn’t in fear for my life. Plus, I looked and smelled a bit like roadkill. I was in no way company-ready.
“Well, I understand that you have just had a lumpectomy. How are you feeling? Do you have any questions?”
“I’m okay, and no.” I was too grumpy about being polite. I just wanted her to leave.
“Well, I’m here to give you all the information that you need about the pink ribbon and breast cancer recovery,” she said as she reached into her bag.
I raised my hand to stop her. “I do my own cancer research. I trust my doctors. Believe me.”
She said, “Here’s a book with all the phone numbers and resources you will need. Here’s another pamphlet that will explain your treatment options. Oh, here’s a list of support groups. Are you in a support group already?” She finally paused.
“I have friends. I’m not really a joiner.”
“Oh, you’ll need a breast cancer support group. You can’t go through this alone.”
Just then, an aide delivered my breakfast. I nearly cried with relief. Surely the Pink Cancer Lady would leave.
She didn’t. “Here is the pink quilt that the local ladies sew for breast cancer patients. Also, here’s a pink ribbon and a pink tote bag. Solidarity, you know. Now let’s talk about the next steps.”
For a cancer support person, she had abysmal listening skills. I sighed. She sat down. It was too early for my family to visit, so I wasn’t going to be rescued. My stomach growled, and I thought, “Screw it.” I took the cover off my rapidly cooling pancakes and put on the butter and syrup.
“Oh,” she said. “Go ahead and eat while I talk.”
"Pink is not a serious color, though cancer is a very serious disease. Pink is about femininity; cancer is about staying alive."
Maybe no one will notice if I stab the Pink Cancer lady
I considered stabbing her with a fork. I could claim extreme emotional distress as my defense.
She talked. I chewed. She talked some more. I chewed some more. In fact, my chewing became more aggressive. I think I was growling as the cold pancake mash moved down my throat. She was oblivious.
“Again, you need to consider a breast cancer support group. You can’t go through your cancer recovery without help. We are all here to give you that help.”
I didn’t scream. I didn’t point out she was the opposite of help. That her presence was making me miserable. That cancer is not always pink. But I did say firmly, “I’ll take care of it.”
At last, she got the drift. This breast cancer patient wasn’t going to behave the way the Pink Cancer Lady expected.
She straightened a bit, stared at me, and said triumphantly, “Remember, you will always be a cancer patient.” Then she walked out.
What the Cancer Lady did to me was wrong on many levels. She was rude, condescending, and stubborn. But her words, "you will always be a cancer patient," bothered me the most.
Read more: Funny books for cancer patients
Breast cancer is not always pink to me
Would I always be a cancer survivor? Would I always be a breast cancer survivor? Was that to be my new identity? In the space of a few weeks, I was no longer Beth but the product of a medical condition: breast cancer. Before cancer, I didn’t like clubs, but after the diagnosis, I was supposed to be a joiner.
Before, I rarely wore pink. After, people would try to cover me in all shades of pink color. Beth wore black before. Beth, after cancer, was supposed to dress like a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. Breast cancer is not a pink ribbon; it is something deeply personal. And cancer is not always pink.
Of course, having a lumpectomy and cancer changes a person, but I suspect that can be said of any critical illness. All hardships change people, but most aren’t identified by them. There goes Jim, and he’s a heart attack survivor. Hey, Betty over there, she’s a stroke person. Meet thrice-divorced Shona.
Once I had breast cancer, some people felt they owned a part of me, which drove me mad. The other time in my life this happened was when I was pregnant. Strangers would touch me. Clothing stores tried to make me wear bunnies on my shirts. I wasn’t supposed to be me.
If you want to help breast cancer patients, don’t dictate what we need or why we need to wear a pink ribbon. We don’t lose our individuality just because we have breast cancer in common. We can survive cancer without becoming perpetual “cancer survivors.”
Some people will benefit from quilts and pink ribbons, and support groups. Others will do better if they can just eat their pancakes in peace. Not all breast cancer survivors want to wear pink ribbons. And remember cancer is not always pink
"Remember that cancer is not always pink. Many women will be diagnosed with lymphoma, leukemia, melanoma, bladder cancer, cervical cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, or brain cancer."
Beth Weber, author of "Breast cancer is not always pink" is a writer, blogger, editor, and proofreader. From Quincy, Illinois's "Gem City."