Last October, I participated in breast cancer walks. I clicked on the pink ribbon in a Facebook application or two. I even scoffed down one of those pink bagels from Panera Bread.
What I did not do, however, was perform a self-breast exam (SBE) or schedule a mammogram. Granted, the restroom at Panera is not the ideal location for an SBE. Still, once I polished off a bagel, sponsored a walk or logged off Facebook, breast cancer simply slipped my mind. I was only 38 years old. I have a family history of cancer but have always been vigilant about annual check-ups and leafy greens.
Then three days before Christmas, I was flipping channels with my daughter and we came across the movie “The Sweetest Thing” starring Cameron Diaz and Christina Applegate. It was the scene where Diaz’s character, age 28, is standing in a dressing room, talking about breasts and gravity.
She pushes her breasts up to where they were when she was 22, then lets them fall to where they are now at age 28. She repeats this a few times, “22, 28, 22, 28.” My daughter found this hilarious, so I mimicked the movements. Then I felt something in my left breast. Something big and weird, like a ceramic hummel, one of the creepier ones, possibly pushing a wheel barrow with a hairless cat. I decided to schedule a doctor's appointment for after the New Year, because mammograms around the holidays…meh.
Aside: I think Christina Applegate, a breast cancer survivor, may have had all her films re-edited with subliminal messages to perform SBEs.
My first ultrasound was “suspicious.” I ran around with my hair on fire, ordering $200 worth of supplements from the Internet. I Googled images of malignant mammograms and learned the medical terms that would condemn or save me.
I pointed to my mammogram films and asked my doctor, “Are those pleomorphic calcifications in the upper left quadrant.” “Yes,” she said, pointing them out.
“I see they’re in a cluster, but are they also linear,” I squeaked out this question, knowing the answer. The doctor suggested I stay off the Internet and said the results, while “worrisome,” didn’t necessarily translate into doom.
I Googled survival rates. What was I going to tell my kids? I was officially swept into the current.
The MRI and biopsy results brought the final verdicts crashing over me like a series of rogue waves. You have breast cancer (CRASH). Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, stage 3 (CRASH). It’s in the nodes (CRASH). Just as I was getting my footing, the final wave ripped the suit from my body and knocked me to the ground: You need chemotherapy, a mastectomy, and radiation, starting immediately. I felt completely naked, lying in child’s pose on the floor of the doctor’s office, not wanting to walk out and face what was ahead.
Whenever I saw a pink ribbon, I saw red. The color pink, so soft and feminine, represents a disease that completely defeminizes; a disease that robs women of their breasts, their hair, their sex drive, their self image. Not to mention the pink ribbons are so ubiquitous that they’ve become generic and no longer mean anything. Each diagnosis is as individual as the woman going through it. We all need to find our own talisman.
My grandmother, Nana Rie, got breast cancer at age 37. She died in perfect health at age 81 after being struck by a car on her way home from a dance class. I wanted to conjure her spirit. Instead of pink ribbons, I wore her funky costume jewelry and pins. I wore medals and good luck charms. I showed up to my first treatment looking like George Clinton.
Nevertheless, I give thanks to the pink ribbon and its army. One in eight women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. Because of the pink ribbon, and the sheer numbers who’ve contributed to the cause, coffers overflow with research dollars and many more women will survive, even thrive, after breast cancer.
Aside: There was a fantastic article by Kris Frieswick in the Boston Globe Magazine about companies profiting from the pink ribbon. It’s something worth keeping in mind before purchasing pink products.
At the market last week, I saw “Sweet and Low” candies emblazoned with the pink ribbon. My first reaction was, “Wait, doesn’t that stuff cause cancer?” Even if it doesn’t it can’t be healthy. Going forward, I’ve decided that instead of buying pink candy, I’ll donate to a local breast cancer charity like Learn, Live, Love here on the South Shore. When I see pink, I’ll grab a healthy whole food snack and remind a friend about early detection. I’ll book a massage or take a yoga class. I’ll not only donate to great causes, but invest in my own health and wellness along the road to the land of NED (No Evidence of Disease).