Pinked

Yesterday, I spoke with a reporter from the Detroit News. She is writing a story about breast cancer awareness month and was interested in talking to folks who are less than tickled pink by the proliferation of pink ribbons. (Who, moi?) I thought I’d blogged forward and backward about this topic, but I was caught a bit off guard by what seems to be the most obvious question of all.

“So, why is pink NOT your color?” she asked.

(Insert forehead-smacking moment here.)

How could I have not written at length about why (exactly) pink is not my color! Okay, loyal readers (all 3 of you) know that I am not a card-carrying member of the rah-rah, breast cancer sisterhood. Hence, maybe the name of my blog is self-explanatory. But I welcomed the chance to answer her question and thought I’d do so here as well. Because, believe it or not, until I was tarred and feathered in pink last February, I thought pink was a swell color.

Let me explain. In those awful two weeks after the “C-bomb” dropped, Mary and I schlepped around shopping for a breast cancer surgeon. My first inkling that  pink was no longer my innocent, cherry, childhood friend was when I entered the first breast surgeon’s waiting room. It was as if a flamingo had just vomited on the place. My eyes stung at the pink upholstery on the chairs, the pink wall-to-wall carpet, and the pink window treatments. The staffs’ outfits matched their surroundings, like lizards that evolve to look like rocks or leaves. Every nurse was peppered with pink-ribbons from her lapel pin to her pink shoelaces. And the pink suffocation didn’t end when you escaped the office, it followed you home, like a virus.

Every time I consulted a breast cancer surgeon, I left with a bag of pink SWAG. I felt as though I’d just attended the breast cancer Oscars–or a birthday party for 5-year-olds. I kid you not, I have a box of breast cancer tchotchies in my linen closet. (Seems like hubris to recycle that breast cancer business—never know when you’re going to need a brochure on metastasis.) Each goody bag revealed various assorted breast cancer bric-a-brac including a pink water bottle to quench my thirst after sitting in the waiting room for hours, pink binders to hold my important medical papers, a pink day planner to help me remember my radiation and chemotherapy appointments, a pink pen to write them down with, and a pink journal in which to record my pinkest of pink thoughts. (Just so you know…I am not making this up.)

Now, just for kicks, imagine a man newly diagnosed with prostate cancer. Picture his doctors and nurses showering him with baby-blue baubles. Maybe his gift bag includes a blue beer cozy, blue-ribbon-bedazzled sweat socks, and a blue notebook to keep track of his deep man-thoughts about how it feels to lose a part of his masculinity. Imagine the man slinging his blue tote over his shoulder on his way out the door. Let’s stop and ask ourselves: Is this supposed to make the man feel better? Does his possession of a blue-ribbon festooned notebook make him feel welcomed into the “sacred brotherhood” of prostate cancer patients? Did a chipper “survivor” pop into the examination room to hold his hand and shoot him knowing looks while the doctor outlined his surgical options? (Again, I’m not making this up.)

This scenario sounds insane when you put a man in the picture, but this is exactly what happened to me last February, and I’m guessing it happens to thousands of women every year. Granted, some breast cancer patients undoubtedly eat pink ribbons for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and that’s fine, but let’s make some room for those of us who aren’t hungry.

This pink-coating of breast cancer makes me want to scream until I’m pink in the face. What would I yell? Oh, here are a few jewels that come to mind: For starters, I’m an adult, not a fairy princess. I don’t want to join your pink sorority. I have a deadly disease, not a boo-boo you can cover up with a giant pink Band-aid. I don’t want a fucking pink day planner. What I need is a surgeon who will treat me like an intelligent person, a person who needs accurate, concise, no-bullshit information much more than she needs a linen closet overflowing with pink gewgaws.

And while I’m on my pink soapbox, I would add: Don’t use your pinkest, most upbeat voice to tell me that radiation will give me a “virtual breast lift” by tightening the skin around my breast or that reconstruction will give me the “breasts I’ve always wanted”—all expenses paid! And stop waving your pink wand, like I’m 8 instead of 38. Pink is cute. Pink is frilly. Pink is for little girls. But there is nothing cute or frilly about having your breasts carved off and your estrogen levels chemically decimated to the point that your libido is a distant memory and your genitals turn to sandpaper.

Do I want to shroud myself in black? No.

Am I a negative, angry person who wants to simmer about her disease, her brush with mortality, her troubles on Tamoxifen? No.

What I am is a smart, curious, thoughtful person who needs a little pink-free space to wrestle with her breast cancer demons. Because no amount of forced pink smiles, pink walks, and pink banners will undo what cancer has done to my body and my psyche. The hardest part is that I know there are other women out there who feel the same, but I can’t see them or hear them because we are all drowning in an ocean of pink.

11 Responses

  1. Kayleigh says:

    OMG, I was screaming yes at the end of nearly every sentence! I have been DREADING this month and all the “pinkness” it entails. And I thought it was just me that got annoyed at the whole goody bag thing, lol.

    Your depiction of a man going thru a baby blue version was hysterical and made the point perfectly.

    Thank you for this post…I’m one of your three loyal readers 😉 (tho I suspect there are actually MANY more!)

  2. Lyrehca says:

    Another one of your readers here–have you seen this Boston Globe Magazine piece on the same topic as this post:

    http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/magazine/articles/2009/10/04/sick_of_pink/

  3. Katie says:

    I was researching this topic for a paper and found an article about this very thing from Harpers – about infantilizing women. The author made a similar point — we don’t give men with prostate cancer Matchbox cars.

    • pinkisnotmycolor says:

      Katie: Yes, Barbara Ehrenreich’s witty, articulate, and spot-on essay– “Welcome to Cancerland” –offers a lifeboat for all breast cancer patients who feel assaulted by pink. I first read it in Harper’s Magazine years ago and then a friend sent it to me after learning of my diagnosis last winter. Ehrenreich has long been one of my writing heros (I want to be just like her when I grow up), and I found great strength in reading her take on what she calls “the cult of pink kitsch” Click here to go to Breast Cancer Action and download the article.

  4. Nikki says:

    I can identify with a lot of your feelings as I was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma last April 2008, and have also been thru surgeries, chemo & radiation. Would like to talk to you more since we shared a locker our Senior year (AHS ’89). Hope to hear from you soon.

  5. Nan says:

    Catherine,
    thanks for once again piercing through the glossy bubble around breast cancer to expose the true experience. I always appreciate your willingness to share your observations and expertise. … but still maintain it would have been better had you never had to become “the expert.” Hugs from CA.

  6. Evelyn Spence says:

    Catherine–
    Christie Aschwanden told me about your blog so I’ve been reading it, and I love your perspective and your humor and your honesty. I just wanted to say hello!! You’re an inspiration.
    –Evelyn

  7. Jana McNally says:

    Catherine
    Thank you for articulating so well what I wasn’t quite sure was bothering me about the pink thing, but there on your blog I found the answer. It is the “branding” of everything in the culture including life threatening deseases and the “one size fits all” mentality (or one color as the case may be). My son died from leukemia 6 years ago and had his disease been branded as yours is, it would have made the experience even more excruciating. Thank you for your words. I’m a friend of your sister, Ginny’s.
    Jana McNally

  8. Beth says:

    I had to buy pink Emergen-C today because it was my only option. I’m sorry. I felt like I was betraying you. But unfortunately, really needed some vitamin C.

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