I’m told it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But I just can’t buy into the whole pink ribbon party. Yes, I’m blessed that I am here to write about my cancer experience today after undergoing treatment 15 years ago. Chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, topped with radiation. But is that “survivor” status something that I want to celebrate? Looking back, I’m not so sure.
Much of the treatment was excruciating, and I had three young children. I wanted to get through it all, and I wanted to do so as quickly as possible. The process was like a tunnel: dark and frightening at the beginning, but as the weeks and months progressed, there it was, that light near the end. It took a long time to navigate my way through that tunnel.
It all started with a routine mammogram. They’re never easy — we sweat all the way to the appointment, and sigh with relief when it’s over. We take for granted that the procedure is designed for contortionists. So there I sat, waiting for the all-clear to go home after my gymnastics with the machine. But as the technician clip-clopped down the linoleum hallway of the radiology office, I grew uneasy. Another view, she said. More waiting. Again, another view, so the doctor can see about something. That little lump the doctor felt turned out to be more than a little lump.
We couldn’t call it cancer. I hated hearing the word, so we renamed mine Sagittarius. It helped me defy it in my own way.
Next stop: doctors, doctors and more doctors. Poking and prodding. Sometimes I felt like a slab of meat. So many of them speak in statistics and averages, and our brains can only take so much. I’ll never forget one doctor saying in all seriousness, “Oh yes, studies show that we can only absorb 51 percent of all statistics when it comes to doctors telling us about survival rates.” Thankfully my oncologist was my quarterback, navigating me through the stats talk to help me make sense of it and make the best decisions about my treatment.
Onto chemo. That meant feeling sick and utterly debilitated for 18 weeks. I got a few weeks off for good behavior. My diagnosis hit right at the beginning of summer, when my kids had three months of free time. Suddenly all that over-programming we swear we’re not going to do to our children seemed like an obvious route. Camp, camp, and more camp. Our friends and family were wonderful, driving and shopping when necessary, and bringing over dinners for the family.
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Then, following the chemo and some time for recovery, the mastectomy. I told my children that I’d be in the hospital for a few days, where the doctors would remove the diseased breast tissue, and insert implants so I’d look and feel as close to “normal” as I always did.
The final stretch was in sight: radiation. The radiation map that a nice tech tattooed onto my chest with about six little dots, hurt like hell. Compared to chemo, radiation was a breeze. But it still wipes you out. I never figured out how a few seconds of zapping every day could just blindside me with exhaustion, and suck all the life out of me for months afterwards.
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Now it’s October, 15 years later. Do I have anything to celebrate for Breast Cancer Awareness month? Yes, of course. I’m alive. And I thank my doctors and my friends and family who helped me live to tell the tale. But I choose not to relive that year of living nauseously. I choose not to wear that pink ribbon because breast cancer is not really a sisterhood for me. I’m not a survivor. I still worry that my cancer could come back.
Perhaps those who do wear that pin offer hope to patients and loved ones, that they have a chance to come out the other side of that scary tunnel. And I would never want to take that hope away from anyone. But the whole “awareness” thing seems a bit shallow to me. My identity is not that of a survivor, nor a patient, nor really anything to do with cancer. I’m not denying my being part of a club to which I never asked for membership. I don’t need little pink ribbons on running shoes and ice cream cartons to make me aware of breast cancer. I’m well-aware. I will be a patient, monitored and tested — rinse and repeat — for the rest of my life.
Andrea Grossman is the creator of Writers Bloc, a non-profit dedicated to promoting literature and the written word.