When my sons were small, they watched a basic-cable cartoon channel called Noggin, which at the time was a commercial-free day of mild, sweet programming. One show my boys briefly enjoyed, Pinky Dinky Doo, featured a little girl with pink hair and a big imagination who lived in Great Big City “with all the Dinky Doos.” And she hated the color pink, as she very often made clear. “My hair is pink, my name is Pinky. But I Don’t. Like. Pink!” she would shout.
All I can say these days is, Man, I feel you, girl.
You’d have to be in a coma to miss the fact that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. A couple of weeks ago, my husband texted me a photo from inside the bagel shop while I waited in the car. It showed a bin filled with howlingly pink bagels, labeled “Breast Cancer Awareness Bagels.” And I thought: Oh. Hell. No.
If I have felt vaguely annoyed by what some call “pinkwashing” in Octobers past, I’m viscerally turned off now. I don’t need more awareness.
If I did, I’d look in the mirror at my autologously reconstructed breasts, at the red scar across my lower abdomen, at the radiation burns that are still healing, at the bottle of tamoxifen on my bedside table.
If I want to be aware I can call up my medical records on the app on my phone. It's all there, the greatest hits! The initial mammography and sonography findings of a “spiculated hypoechoic mass with internal vascularity” (that one sent me into a deep vortex of anxiety last spring, as I waited for the confirmation of the biopsy results, just knowing that mine wouldn’t be among the benign).
Or the post-mastectomy details of exactly what specimens were sent to pathology, returning with labels like “infiltrating carcinoma, predominantly lobular with focal ductal features.”
Those aren’t words you’ll see on a T-shirt this month. Instead, shirts proclaim their wearers are “Warriors” (no thanks), or boast slogans that ickily straddle sexy and cute, like “Save the Boobies” (too late?).
For me, honesty is what’s missing during PinkTober. Raw honesty. Real truths. Here’s one: My abdomen may be flatter than it was last spring, but there’s a good possibility I won’t ever regain sensation in all of it. The tamoxifen I’m taking for five years (or seven?) could throw me into menopause more abruptly than I’d like, among other yet-to-be-experienced side effects.
And, of course, the cancer could come back.
For me, and for many women with breast cancer and survivors I’ve spoken to, the pink is simply spread too far and wide to feel meaningful (pink ChapStick, pink soccer cleats, and so many balloons), or too cute to stomach (ribbons and cupcakes and stickers and twinkly pink lights in store windows) or just too blatantly commercial to be fully on board with.
The vague griftiness of it all stings many of us, even if the original goal is to raise research funds or prompt busy, forgetful women to schedule a screening. But if a store is asking customers to round up their purchase to “donate” to “breast cancer,” where is that money going, really? And is a pink-ribboned box of frozen waffles or pink Oreos a good way to remind women to get their mammogram? (I convinced an apprehensive 43-year-old neighbor to get her first, no pink involved.)
A little more than halfway through my first PinkTober, I can say that it's the ubiquity that irks me most. The office where I work has pink twinkle lights in the window, part of a townwide “awareness” campaign. I can’t take a midday, head-clearing walk without pink flags in my peripheral vision. As a health journalist, I can’t open my email without pitches for every aspect of breast cancer you can think of. In today’s batch were results of a new survey reporting that a third of women who undergo mastectomy and breast reconstruction “don’t know that there’s a period of emotional adjustment.”
Ladies. Call me.
I’m aware every moment of every day that I have cancer. I’m aware of it when I think back, when I think ahead, when I try to stop thinking. Maybe it’ll be different next year. Who knows, maybe I’ll be racing in a Breast Cancer Awareness 5K with pink sneakers and a pink ribbon in my hair. Doubtful, but then again, I never figured I’d end up with cancer, either.
For now, I’m hiding out the best I can until November rolls around.