Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Even Rock Stars Get Breast Cancer in October

I've been neglecting this space lately, but not without good reasons. 1) I had the flu, possibly the porcine kind, and my brain did not function because it was clouded with cold medicine. 2) Once I got better, things got crazy, both at home (we're trying to buy one) and at work (don't get me started). I've been so busy I sometimes forget to pee. And then I get crampy, and I'm like, oh yeah, I've been chained to my computer all day. 3) I really feel TOTALLY AT EASE ABOUT SURGERY. I'm just sorta counting the days at this point. I can't wait to be on the other side.

But I come here today to address the big, pink elephant in the room: it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a fact you'd have to be living in a cave and/or colorblind not to have noticed. This is the first Breast Cancer Awareness Month that I've been aware of my breast cancer risk, and, as such, I'm experiencing it in a different way than I have before. (It is also my last Breast Cancer Awareness Month with breasts, but that's neither here nor there.) But lest you think I'm tying pink ribbons 'round old oak trees, I'm actually finding my cynicism and skepticism are at all time highs. Here's the deal: I'm not a pink person, in character, attitude, or outlook. I reject it based on its signification of stereotypical femininity. I also think pink oversimplifies and white (pink?) washes the disease. It tells people it's OK to get breast cancer and getting breast cancer doesn't make you less of a woman and breast cancer is pretty, just like the color pink. When of course that's not true at all. And perhaps, worst of all, it makes breast cancer so synonymous with women that men who fall victim to the disease are embarrassed to be stricken by a female cancer.

But what is the purpose, after all, of Breast Cancer Awareness Month? My sense, as someone who experienced dozens of them before it ever meant anything to me, is that it does not actually do anything. It's not like every October I was suddenly diligently doing self-breast exams. And I don't think, for the average women who hears that they have a 1 in 8 chance of getting breast cancer in their life, they suddenly become obsessed with their odds (because let me tell ya, those look pretty good to me over here in 87% land). I think Breast Cancer Awareness Month does at least two things, so far as I can tell. 1) It allows people to feel good about themselves by participating in events -- walks, fundraisers, lectures, pink t-shirt wearing conferences -- that address or fund breast cancer in some way. People like to feel good about themselves, and they like to believe that their good deeds will somehow immunize themselves from ever catching the dreaded disease. So lots of people wear and think pink because they want to do something to make themselves feel empowered while also banking karma points. 2) (And this I think is the more successful/admirable achievement) Breast Cancer Awareness Month is great PR for Breast cancer. Now, breast cancer, being a deadly disease, and a non-human entity, can't hire a PR agency. But for lots of years, hundreds even, it had a very bad rep. It was considered a "woman's problem" and not addressed by name because the word itself contained a body part and that body part was a dirty word. But the modern breast cancer movement forced society to address the issue, to confront their squeamishness about it, and deal with it. As such, Breast Cancer now has a much better public profile, so much better, in fact, that lots of people don't think it's that big of a deal because, gosh, look at all those ladies wearing pink and smiling in those posters on the bus and in commercials on television. It's done such a good job of resuscitating its image -- its been so successful in getting us to talk about and feel our boobs -- that in some ways has diminished its significance. Breast cancer is so quotidian now it's like traffic or the US Mail. It's just there.

Which brings me to my last point. Breast cancer isn't just a woman's cancer, though we've done a capable job of branding it as such. This fact is on my mind for two reasons. 1) (And by the way, what with all the numbering in this post? I'm thinking very linearly today) My husband, who along with other people I respect, including Chuck Klosterman, has otherwise good taste in music but a boyish soft spot for the band KISS, alerted me yesterday to the fact that Peter Criss, the original drummer and the one in the cat make-up, has breast cancer. (I just mentioned this to my boss, who is also is a KISS fan, and he said, and I quote, "That's so un-rock 'n roll!" Which it's not, because it's breast cancer. My point exactly.) Criss issued the following statement: "I wanted to let you know men get it like women do. Don't be afraid to let someone know if you have a lump. Do the right thing for you and your loved ones and get it checked. Man or woman, there is no discrimination with breast cancer ... we all don't have nine lives." Rock gods are fallible too. 2) A close relative, whose name or relation I will not disclose, because I haven't gotten his permission to tell his story here, recently discovered precancerous cells in his chest wall. He was was lucky enough to find them, of course, because, he, like me, is BRCA2+ and was doing close surveillance. But despite what I consider a near-miracle of detection and prevention, he was terribly upset to learn he was in the first stages of developing a woman's disease and, to combat it, had to undergo a woman's surgery. The fact that his life was saved was over-shadowed by shame.

All of this is to say that, yes, I'm glad we can talk openly about breast cancer. I'm glad "breast" is no longer a dirty word. And I'm even mostly OK with the onslaught of pink -- ribbons, NFL uniforms, other shit. But I worry about the normalizing we've done to the disease. That we've made it so accessible that its no longer viewed by the general public as disruptive or deadly (I definitely have heard more than once, on my decision to have my breasts removed, "Well, if you do get breast cancer and catch it early it's no big deal, right?" Riiiight. Cancer is fun! It's pink! It's women hugging and smiling! No.). And we've excluded the men, so much so that a British man is petitioning to change the name of the disease to "chest cancer" because its current (gendered) name is too much of an impediment for men who might be at risk to seek help.

The biggest objective, it seems to me, of Breast Cancer Awareness Month should be advocating for a cure, rather than branding pastel colors. And yet, there is no cure. That's what we should really be talking about this month.


  1. Poignant post from my favorite lady. Xoxo.

  2. AMEN!!!!

    I also have to say on a *completely* 100% selfish note that the constant barrage of BC awareness PSA's that flood all forms of media from T-shirts to TV act as an unwelcome reminder to me personally. Yeah, yeah, I know I have cancer and maybe I should be more generous or grateful or something...but sometimes I manage, albeit briefly, to forget a little here and there -- oh but not for too long before someone is happily smiling surrounded by pink balloons solemnly reminding me that together we can find/race/walk for the cure.

    Meanwhile no one talks about prevention...or about what happens to you if you DO get BC.

    Okay, so I'm a tad bitter obviously, lol. But your post just had me shouting from my computer chair, going, "YES, right on, you said it!"

    Great stuff, per usual :)

  3. The pink ribbons had me thinking too, thinking that there has to be a more effective campaign out there. I'm glad that they are at least trying though, that is something.

    I didn't know that about the Kiss dude, had to look that up. They found his BC early enough to treat it. It got me to wondering what made him get checked in the first place..since most men wouldn't..

    Thanks again for a great post, and for talking about men with breast cancer.. I have a friend whose dad battled (& survived it).. her brca mutation came from him actually.

    It's good to think outside of the box sometimes, and you always help me do that. Thank you!


  4. my sister suffers from breast cancer, hope she'll get better soon..
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  5. The pink ribbon has always made me queasy--after my mother died of BC, wearing it seemed like a backhanded ploy for pity. And now that I know I have a brca2 mutation, I feel like a bit of a cheater if I try to get on the pink bandwagon. So I'm going with the beige ribbon, as in Emily Post's advice for the mother of the groom: "Wear beige and keep your mouth shut." Yes, work for a cure. But can't we unburden my once-favorite color, so I can wear it without poignancy, just to feel pretty?