Essay: October: Over for Another Year

October, or “Pinktober” as it has been called, is over for another year, and I can’t tell you how glad I am that I no longer have to be visually beaten with that awful color. Little pink ribbons everywhere; neon-pink shirts; soft pink high-lights on waterfalls, fountains, and yes, even on buildings; endless advertisements showing Susan G. Komen “Race for the Cure,” and even food products packaged in shiny pink. And a seemingly-constant barrage of media showing women agreeing that if only the world would throw money at this or that or the other cause/foundation/corporation will “we find the cure to cancer/we eradicate cancer.” Please. All of the “October looks good on you” hoop-la is enough to make a cynic vomit. But. Before you begin yelling, cursing, or entering angry comments about what you just read, know that two of my friends had breast cancer, and another friend died of cancer when she was yet in her twenties. Another dear friend has been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. Two of my great-aunts died of breast cancer, and my maternal grandmother died of colon cancer. I had breast cancer in 1997. And I also thought, at the very beginning of my diagnosis, that Pinktober was a great way to fund breast cancer research. At some point, though, my enthusiasm waned.

I can’t pinpoint the exact day, hour, or minute that I realized I disliked pink with such great intensity. And I don’t know when I equated eradicating cancer with the same likelihood of achieving world peace.

Maybe my cynicism started the day I talked with hospital staff regarding how much my initial surgery would cost. Because I had no insurance at the time (and I was working full-time, but for two different schools), I would have to pay for the surgery, recovery room stay, any medications or anesthesia, plus all the doctors, specialists, and nurses involved with the surgery. The cost? Somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000. (I found out later that radiation alone was $20,000. That’s not counting the doctors, radiologists, or other specialists involved with radiation treatment.) I had $600 in my account. The staffer kindly told me the hospital could work with me for financial planning, and did I want to reserve the operating room? I tersely thanked the staffer and told her I would have to call her back. I remember thinking then that getting sick was for rich people.

Or perhaps cynicism started with twinges of unease when I walked into the hospital gift shop and saw an avalanche of pink for sale: angel pins,
Pink Angel Ribbon
ribbon pins, bows, hats, scarves, bandanas, sunglasses, t-shirts, soap, socks, and caps. Maybe, though, pink was chosen because people associate it with femininity, softness, and comfort. And perhaps people find comfort in knowing doctors, nurses, hospitals, clinics, and organizations are doing their best to help, in some way, cancer patients. But why did everything have to be pink? Why not black, for the anxiety and depression upon hearing the doctor say, “The biopsy results indicate the tumor is malignant.” Why not red, for the anger that can build up with older doctors who recommend full instead of partial mastectomies (the surgery costs are cheaper, after all) ?

Perhaps my cynicism started after my first (and last) Susan G. Komen “Race for the Cure” participation. My sister actually signed me up, along with my mother and herself. The race/walk began at 8am, and we had to get up early (like 5am early) to be there at 7am. I admit to being surprised at the tremendous turnout. So many women, so much pink — it was like a river of pink, flowing to some great distant ocean of hope.
Komen Race
And women talking with women about family, about health, about the sisterhood that forms between breast cancer patients – if compassion was all that was needed for a cure, breast cancer would have been eradicated several times over at that one race. So, yes, my initial reaction was, “This is awesome.” But later, seeing how quickly people left the race-site, leaving behind mounds of crushed water cups, yogurt containers, napkins, and other plastic or paper containers (probably containing PCB), I started pondering, how much did the pre-race advertising cost? How much did the race supplies, t-shirts, speaker fees (there were some “inspirational speakers” talking to the crowd before we all started running, jogging, or walking the race route), and prizes cost? How much of the race proceeds paid those costs, and how much went to research? I was already a skeptic within 30 minutes of finishing my first (and last) Susan G. Komen “Race for the Cure”.

Possibly, my cynicism kicked in just before my first chemotherapy treatment. I found out healthy foods would become hard to eat – citrus fruits would burn the inside of my mouth, certain vegetables would not digest well and should be avoided, and other foods could taste metallic. Fortunately for me, I could still digest dairy products. And that’s when I started reading food labels. And found out that the yogurt I so enjoyed was made with dairy that was stimulated with the hormone rBGH. You know what that is, right? It’s the hormone used to help dairy cows produce more milk to meet consumer demand. In 1996, though, that same hormone was linked to higher colon and breast cancer risks. So – the company that wrapped its yogurt containers in pink every October to “raise money for the fight against breast cancer” actually sold a product linked to cancer. I equated it with someone who espouses peace, but sells massive amounts of weaponry to anybody willing to pay. Not until 2008 did the organization Think Before You Pink take on the dairy industry. The organization’s online campaign caused General Mills and Dannon to go rBGH free by August 2009; two-thirds of America’s dairy products are made by those two companies alone. Why, after reports in scientific journals, did two mega-companies continue using rBGH ingredients in their products for 13 more years?

Cynical? Absolutely. Angry? Yes – but not towards those people who so want to help their friends, family, or other loved ones but don’t know where to begin. And not towards the nursing staff, doctors, or other support staff who are focused like lasers on their patients. I’m angry at people who believe that profiting from symbols of fear is good business. Wrap Pinktober in feminine, soft, and comforting images with pink ribbon, and watch the profits soar, even after a corporation has donated a specific percentage towards “fighting breast cancer”.

Here’s a serious truth, a harsh reality: breast cancer and its accompanying treatment is not any of those images you see during Pinktober. The treatment protocol I experienced did not make me feel feminine; first, I had a long thick tube inserted in my side to drain body fluids after surgery. Then I had a smaller, silicon tube inserted in one of my veins, leading to my heart, to administer chemotherapy (C5FU and Adriamycin, also known as “Red Devil”). I began to resemble the Borg from Star Trek: Next Generation.
The Borg
The treatment itself most definitely was not soft; I was injected with enough chemicals to kill cancer cells, temporarily destroy my esophagus, make my heart feel like I had run a marathon every three or four weeks (yes, I used to run in 10K races), and make my head burn as the hair follicles died and the hair fell out in clumps. I developed a chemical smell that made mosquitoes, gnats, and other flying insects avoid me. And comfort? The resulting inner scar tissue makes having mammograms highly uncomfortable experiences.

I am most definitely not comforted when comparing statistics from 1940 and now: In the 1940’s, 1 out of 44 women could expect to have breast cancer. Today, 1 out of 8 women can expect to have breast cancer. You are more likely to have breast cancer now, in our wonderful, technologically-advanced society, than win the lottery or get hit by lightning. If breast cancer occurrences continue at that rate, women “could face a 1 in 4 chance of developing breast cancer.” Can anyone tell me why, with so much money supposedly donated for “the fight against breast cancer,” breast cancer statistics seemingly indicate the disease, not research, is winning?

No, pink is not a color I would choose to wear, especially now, when I notice how commercialized that color has become. Corporate “pinking” makes me wonder how much of the generated sales truly benefits cancer patients, cancer research, or community services, and how much of those pink sales go into producing more cancer-linked products for unwary consumers.