Words and digital images by Alysa Cummings
Affiliation: The Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: October 1, 2013
I'm at the neighborhood Acme, standing in the produce aisle, reaching for some shiny red MacIntosh apples, when I hear a female voice behind me:
Remind all the women in your life to get a mammogram...
Startled, I drop the fruit into my shopping cart, look around the store, and try to figure out where the voice is coming from. Suddenly I spot a monitor hanging from the ceiling, right over the potatoes, onions and shelled peanuts. On the screen, an attractive blonde in her mid-thirties is sharing the importance of breast health in a serious voice with a matching expression on her face:
Women over forty should get mammograms every year...
Who would argue with her? No one. Not me, certainly. Early detection is key. It's literally lifesaving information that needs to be broadcast to the widest possible audience.
But that day at the Acme, standing in the produce aisle staring up at the monitor, I shake my head and angrily mutter two words under my breath: enough already! Thanks to Supermarket TV, I can't even do my food shopping in peace without having to think about breast cancer.
Yes, it's October again. Fall has arrived in rich shades of orange, brown and yellow. Everywhere you look there are signs of the seasons changing: big colorful piles of leaves raked to the curb, mums and pumpkins artfully arranged on the neighbors' front steps.
But in CancerLand this time of year, there's a totally different color scheme. October is the pink month. Truly, madly, deeply pink, everywhere you look: pink ribbons, pink tee shirts, pink hats. Shop online. You can buy pink ribbon stuffed animals, pink ribbon bracelets, pink ribbon shoelaces. On October 1 st even Yahoo got involved, looping a virtual pink ribbon around the first letter of their name.
This month there's also dancing, racing, walking and driving for the cure. Go ahead, pick another verb I haven't thought of, and someone else probably already has, and created an event for the cause, all in the name of pinkness. Now, please understand: I have nothing against fundraising, especially if it means we might actually get closer to a cure for cancer in my lifetime. What grates on my nerves is that so much of this well-intentioned effort is jam packed into the 31 days of October.
Open any newspaper or magazine this month. Odds are there's a human interest story featuring a breast cancer survivor (or two). In these articles, the words fight, brave and battle will no doubt appear. Sometimes in the very same sentence. It makes me more than a little crazy.
On TV, expect the evening news to spotlight a new drug in the War Against Cancer. Or discuss an extremely unappetizing food that you have never heard of before that is now being touted for its anti-cancer properties. Change the channel: Oprah's got Christina Applegate and Nancy Brinker on her show, both crying on camera, at the same time. Seriously, when it comes to Breast Cancer Awareness Month and its insidious pinkness, there's truly nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Houston, we've got a problem. I'm on October pink overload. And there's a few good reasons why.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month puts a spotlight on breast cancer. (I'm guessing the spotlight is pink, but I could be wrong). That fact by itself is incredibly ironic, because for so many of us on this bumpy road to recovery, breast cancer rarely moves very far from center stage. Survivors these days are strongly encouraged to think of breast cancer as a chronic disease. Which means it's like a hawk flying wide, sleepy circles in the sky high above the earth. To take the metaphor one step further, during the entire month of October, that majestic predator lands, makes a huge nest on my head and squawks loudly non-stop for thirty-one days straight. I'm not kidding. Am I the only breast cancer survivor who feels this way? One thing I know for sure; I don't need an entire month every year to remind me of things I can never ever forget.
Damn October - the non-stop pinkness, the endless breast self-exam reminders (in the shower, laying down, standing up) – the whole thing makes me self-conscious, knocks me totally off balance and shatters whatever "new normal" equilibrium I've managed to build up over the years. Which is such a shame because for me, October 2008 should be a time for serious celebration. Let the record show that it's been ten years since my cancer diagnosis. (...and I'm feeling more than a little superstitious as I type these words and see them appear on the computer screen. Do I dare plan a Decade in CancerLand Party and risk angering the gods that keep me N.E.D.?)
But when all is said and done, here's the real October demon. Breast Cancer Awareness Month has a way of putting my CancerLand experiences on instant replay. And, unfortunately, all of the intense feelings that go along with this traumatic chapter in my life play back too.
In late October, 1998, I remember being stretched out on my couch in the den watching the evening news. They were running one of those predictable stories about a Breast Cancer survivor that ended with the reporter promoting monthly self-examination. My hand moved with a mind of its own to my right breast. And that's when I felt it: a lump.
By Halloween, I was flat on my back on the gynecologist's examination table, staring up at the ceiling while the doctor stuck a syringe in my chest to aspirate fluid from the lump.
I tried to describe that night in my journal:
The holes in the ceiling tiles shift crazily in and out of focus. Dots. Holes. Shadows. Connect the dots. I squeeze the nurse's hand much too tightly and wonder if all the sweat I feel is mine. I smell myself; my own sticky fear. I don't like it , the doctor says, finally removing the needle. It's very bloody. Not acting like a cyst at all. I sit up and look down at myself. The bandage on my chest is a small square with a bright red circle in the center. The flag of Japan , I think to myself. The doctor tries to reassure with lots of nervous pats on my leg. Then the door slams, she's gone and I am alone, cold and shaking all over. I pull on my jeans and trash the paper gown. Something has changed. I know it. Feel it intuitively. For the first time I have seen cancer reflected in a doctor's eyes. I have a feeling it won't be the last...
By Thanksgiving I was recovering from my first surgery and being scheduled for a second one because the margins weren't clear. By the eighth day of Hanukkah, I was through my first round of chemo. As thousands of people screamed for the ball to drop in Times Square to welcome the New Year, I watched them on TV and felt the hair on my head release in sections and slide down my back in clumps. Within days I was bald, without an eyelash or eyebrow in sight. All of this happened ten years ago. But when Breast Cancer Awareness Month comes around again, all dressed in pink, I have to stop for a moment and carefully check the year printed on my calendar; it still sometimes feels like it all just happened yesterday.
Maybe my support group buddy Cecelia will be my angel and help me get through Breast Cancer Awareness Month this year. She recently shared a poem she wrote that spoke to me so strongly. "Everywhere I go I carry cancer with me," she wrote. "Now it's not heavy." I guess I know what I need to work on before next fall.
31 Days is part of a series of OncoLink poetry projects that I have been honored to develop and share with fellow survivors over the years in my role as Oncolink's poet-in-residence. This poetry project was originally timed to coincide with Mother's Day and includes thirty-one poems by cancer survivors celebrating the breast cancer experience, thirty-one digital photos and thirty-one healing quotations.
My hope is that it's a healing combination. Day by day, may it bring comfort, no matter where you are on your way to recovery.
Dedicated to my mother, Adele Darris (1929-2007)
She danced with cancer for only half a day, then abruptly left the party.