For three years now, every October, I’ve begun a blog post about breast cancer awareness. In 2010, when I was sick to death of everyone posting obnoxious Facebook memes about Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I sat down and wrote what may have been the most hateful, invective-filled piece of work I’ve ever created [not counting breakup letters, of course]. In addition to “post your bra color in your status message because BOOBS, y’all!”, I was also treated to stockpiles of junk branded with pink ribbons every time I set foot into a store or visited an online retailer, as if buying the right muffins or nail polish or engine oil would really make it any better for any of the sufferers of breast cancer. I recognize that some of these companies did give money to legitimate organizations researching and treating the disease, and that’s admirable, but for many, it was merely a marketing technique to make their customers buy more without doing anything real to help the sufferers of breast cancer.
Thankfully, I had the sense not to post what I wrote publicly*, less out of a desire to avoid drama and more from wanting to post a more finished piece of work. [Because posting dramatic stuff doesn't scare me that much.] Instead, I saved it in my Evernote and figured I’d come back to it later. In October 2011, the same thing happened, and while I did my best to revise, it was still pretty hateful [and still without an ending] So I’m trying again, and while my feelings on the matter have mellowed enough to write something that’s not ridiculously ugly, I’m still pretty riled up.
I lost my mom to breast cancer eleven years ago. Not long after she died, I realized that finding out you have cancer is like being a person who doesn’t like animals, but finding out that from now on, you’ll be forced to care for an [incredibly sick, poorly behaved, dirty] animal. You don’t have any choice in the matter, so you rearrange your life for something that you didn’t even want anyway; you can’t get rid of it, and nothing’s ever the same.
For me, mourning my mom started when she got sick. From day one, we had no countdown. We didn’t know if it would kill her, or how fast. So it went from being something horrifying – puckered staples across her chest, vomiting at the mere sight of food the day after a treatment, eventually being unable to walk – to something that was just there, like the stack of coupons and the cup of pens on the windowsill. It permeated all aspects of my life. She didn’t wear her wig to take a picture with me in my prom dress; her head was grey and shiny. After her surgery, she could only wear button-front blouses, because she couldn’t lift her arm to put on a t-shirt. I was in a unique position among my peers in that I couldn’t sneak in after curfew, because she slept in the living room, right by the front door: the radiation treatment had affected her balance so that she couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without extreme vertigo.
By the time she passed on, we all knew it was going to happen, and we’d spent all our feelings on the matter a long time ago. It was just a matter of waiting.
Mourning’s a funny thing, though. Because most of the time, I feel like I’m done with it. I’ve accepted the fact that she’s gone, having moved through denial, anger, fear, and bargaining, and finally acceptance. But every October, though, when the breast cancer awareness activity ramps up, I revert to anger. I think at this point, it might just be something that happens to me every year, the way that some people get really into fitness at the new year, or get really depressed when the days start getting shorter.
I almost feel like based on what I saw my mom go through, I have an obligation to get involved with prevention efforts in her honor and memory, so that eventually no one loses their mom like I lost mine. But a lot of stuff about the breast cancer awareness movement would have to change, and I don’t think it’s going to.
We’d have to stop talking about breast cancer in particular. Because lung cancer sucks too, and so does AIDS, and so do a lot of other things. I don’t mean to trivialize breast cancer, but I think focusing narrowly on this particular disease ignores a lot of suffering that we could help.
We’d also have to stop talking about awareness and start talking about action. Forget about Facebook memes; how about someone works with me to write a ZocDoc plugin that allows people to book mammograms online in one step? Or, let’s do it one better – general preventive care, since we’re not just talking about breast cancer anymore? **
And finally, at some point, we’d have to stop buying garbage with pink ribbons. Because it doesn’t help, and often is carcinogenic in the first place. Which just makes it uglier to me.
*Except for one very bitter tweet around that time, which went something like “Posting on Facebook about breast cancer isn’t going to bring my mom back. So how about you shut the fuck up and do something real with your efforts, hmm?”
**Seriously, let’s get in on this. I love Zocdoc and I think it could be a really cool way to encourage people to get better, more regular preventive care, and with health care reform mandating that insurance companies have to provide it for free, it’s going to be a lot easier to be healthier.