|The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania|
I hate pink. When my daughter was a baby, I changed the words in her nursery rhymes. I wanted her to learn that little girls did not all turn into princesses and little boys did not all squirm like puppy dog tails. She was the only two-year-old girl with blue chuck sneakers. Whether any of this made a difference, I do not know. But she has turned into a self-assured young woman who is expecting a baby girl in January. She has a responsible job, a loving husband, and a meaningful life. She told me that I could feel free to change the words in Molly’s (her soon-to-born child’s) nursery rhymes also.
However, the main reason that I hate pink is because of the month of October--Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For me and the thousands of other women and men who battle this disease so that we may live to see our grandchildren, pink just does not do it. Nor do frilly ribbons, pink fountains, pink sales promotions, and once-a-year TV spots. Pink is a prissy color, and the colors of autumn vibrate with rich hues of copper, red, and gold.
I understand that the pink campaign has led to increased public awareness that has spawned millions of dollars in research that has benefited all of us survivors. I also appreciate that it has led to thousands of women being screened, and perhaps, many lives saved. For that, I am grateful. I pray that these efforts will spare my daughter and yet-to-be-born granddaughter from the scourges of this disease.
However, pink is not the whole story. For me and many other women, breast cancer does not end with early detection and first-line treatments. For 20 to 30% of survivors, the disease metastasizes and shows up months to years later in the bones, liver, lungs, chest wall, brain, etc. As Elizabeth Edwards testified, this means that the cancer is no longer curable but remains treatable until all known treatments fail to arrest the cancer.
For those of us with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, this means enduring CAT scans, bone scans, MRI’s, PET scans, hormonal therapy, chemotherapy, and mild-to-toxic side effects for the rest of our lives. It means staring starkly at our mortality and facing the awareness that we may leave our loved ones and this life far too soon. It means learning that we do not have control over our lives and accepting the randomness of fate. Whether we are in our 30’s or 70’s, even if we ate organically, exercised every day, had the BRCA breast cancer mutations or didn’t, diligently followed the cancer-screening guidelines--examined our breasts every month and had routine mammograms--the one random cancer cell found its way into our blood stream or lymph system and remained undetected until it decided to rear its ugly head. This is the truth about breast cancer that pink does not reveal. We are often shunned by other early-stage cancer survivors because no one who has endured surgery or months of toxic chemotherapy wants to hear that no matter how skilled the physicians, how early the stage at diagnosis, and how small the tumor, her cancer can recur. As one physician told me, “The disease is curable, but sometimes nasty stuff can happen.”
In my twelve years of living with breast cancer (my mother, who survived the disease, was diagnosed the year before me), I have learned that not everything about living with cancer is terrible, and that there is much to be grateful for. I have met and embraced many courageous, strong women in my support group and yoga classes at The Wellness Community and the workshops that I have attended through Living Beyond Breast Cancer. I have made many new friends and continue to embrace long-time friends, family members, and my synagogue community, who have surrounded my husband and me with love and support. I cherish each day and can find joy in a book, listening to a symphony, or walking in the park with my puppy. Since my metastatic diagnosis in 2007, I have traveled to Scotland, Greece, and France and spent many sun-filled days at the Jersey Shore and in Florida. I have taken up yoga, writing, digital photography, dog hugging, mentoring student teachers, and planning and attending my daughter’s wedding. For all of this, I am grateful for the significant advances that have been made in the treatment of metastatic disease. I have received excellent and compassionate medical care, and I remain in awe of my oncologist and the many nurses and doctors who offer hope to us patients battling overwhelming odds and despair. I know that these advances have been made possible because of those ubiquitous pink ribbons.
Yet I also am aware of the young women I have met who never made it to their first mammogram; the women I know who were diagnosed not through routine screening, but by an x-ray after an automobile accident; the women who are struggling to raise young children as they battle this disease. I miss the funny, smart, and courageous women who were part of my support group and who are now no longer with us.
Yes, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and because of the efforts of the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network, (www.mbcnetwork.org), October 13 is Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day. On that day, be sure to wear pink, but remember that pink is not the only color. For some of us, blue or turquoise or gray or purple may seem more appropriate. And say a prayer that in our lifetimes, a cure for breast cancer and other terrible cancers will be found.
Anita Spiegel is a 12 year survivor of breast cancer.