To Pink or Not to Pink (Breast Cancer Awareness)

Our family doesn’t need a day for Breast Cancer Awareness. I’ve been aware of breast cancer since I was old enough to inquire why my mom had a dad but not a mom. My mom was 7 years old when her mother died of breast cancer in 1956. Mom’s four brothers were 16,14,12, and 5 years old. Mom was the only girl left in the house.

This death, more than anything else, shaped our family for generations.

In 1984 at age 36, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery (which she’s been willing to show off to any female acquaintance who finds herself with the same diagnosis). She has, thankfully, been cancer free ever since. She has shared her story, exposed her body, and offered hope to many women over the years who struggle with the fear this diagnosis can bring.

She has been cancer free for 30 years. *BUT* being cancer free in your body does not mean that your mind no longer goes there. I can’t speak for my mother, but I can’t go a single day and not wonder if I have it. Growing up knowing how devastating breast cancer can be, that it can cause someone to die, that it can cause kids to lose their mother, that it can affect generations by the loss of a matriarch. I grew up feeling that tangible loss even though it happened 16 years before I was even born.

Let me tell you a secret: My mom hates those pink ribbons. Occasionally she will receive gifts with pink ribbons on them. I don’t know why they do that. But, Mom will display them for the required amount of time to show her appreciation, and then they are promptly donated. I have seen her hold these pink ribbon items in her hands, stare at them as if someone has intentionally tried to hurt her, and then shake her head with sadness. That shaking of her head is the only expression of her pain she shows, and I doubt many people have seen it outside of her immediate family.

Mom’s life is not benefited by waking up every morning to fill up her pink ribbon mug with water to help wash down the handful of vitamins and meds she takes every day. I wouldn’t want one, either. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel for lumps and misinterpret every cyclical change in my breasts as a possible sign of cancer. I made my first appointment to have a lump checked when I was 19. I have inquired to doctors about reasons for breast changes so often that now I feel like I’m a hypochondriac and I’m ashamed. But I don’t worry less. I just talk about it less.

Not everyone feels this way, though.

I met my husband about five years after his sister died of breast cancer. She had been in her mid-30’s and had a 9 year old daughter whose father had died five years before. My husband’s other sister stepped in as the girl’s mother with help from their parents. Everyone in that family had their hearts broken and their lives changed.

But they are okay with the pink ribbon as far as I know. I think for them it is a way to remember the person they loved and lost. They fought so hard to save her when she was sick, and that pink ribbon is a sign that they’re still fighting for others. I completely understand that connection.

There are obviously different points of view. Perhaps the pink ribbon has different meanings for those who have lost someone else vs. those who have fought the battle and survived (so far). Maybe it depends on how profoundly lives were altered. Maybe it has to do with preexisting anxiety and susceptibility to bad memories being triggered.

Regardless of why, just know that not every cancer survivor wants a pink ribbon mug, tshirt, blanket, hat, fridge magnet, waffle iron, or earrings. If you have not actually seen the person donning other pink ribbon paraphernalia, it is probably a sign that they don’t want it.

If someone lost their mother in a car wreck, you would not gift them every year with a replica of the 1957 Cadillac she was driving at the time.

If someone had nearly died after falling off a ladder, you wouldn’t gift them every year with miniature ladders to promote ladder safety. That would actually make you an asshole.

Breast Cancer awareness is *SO MUCH MORE* than knowing it exists. If you are going to be aware, be aware of the stories of the survivors you love. Be aware of their wishes and fears. Be aware that it is a tragedy, not a celebration.

My kids’ school asked that everyone wear pink today for Breast Cancer Awareness. These kids are ages 5-12 years old. My 10 year old put on her pink shirt in the same way she put on her school spirit shirt the day before because of “Read with the Eagles” day. Does she understand the weight of the tragedy that is Breast Cancer? Will there be any effort to convey that on Breast Cancer Awareness Day? The answer is likely no, and I’m okay with that because these are kids. The entire thing is likely to do nothing more than equate pinkness with caring about Breast Cancer in these kids’ young minds. Will my mother, other survivors, and future diagnosed women benefit from kids believing pink = support?

When I dressed my son, I pulled a pink polo shirt over his head. With his face still beneath the cotton/poly blend, he said, “I hate pink!”

Last I heard, his favorite colors were blue and pink. I don’t know why today is any different. And yet, I do.

My grandmother (center), mid-1930's.

My grandmother (center), mid-1930’s.

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