Last week, I unleashed my (not so) inner feminist in an interview with Christie Aschwanden. Christie is not only a top-notch science writer but also a dear friend. She has written extensively about controversial topics in the breast cancer community. She is on #teamscience, which is not an easy team to play for these days. And, so, I deeply appreciate her inviting me to explore some complex ideas I’ve been grappling with these past few months, including how health care providers unintentionally perpetuate systems that harm breast cancer patients. When writing my memoir, FLAT, I aligned closely with the craft of creative nonfiction genre. I worked hard to stay rooted in the roles of character and narrator. Meaning, I didn’t expand my voice or my view beyond the scope of the story and direct connections to the story. So, in some ways, this Q&A with Christie was a welcome exercise as it allowed me to speak in a different register. I got to fully explore some complicated ideas and draw on inspiration I found in Susan Sontag’s essays. I hope you’ll take a look at the Q&A and let me know what you think.
An abbreviated version of last month’s blog entry “Pinked” aired on my local NPR station (WFIU) last Thursday, October 29th. (Thank you to all of the Bloomingtonians who tuned in!) The spoken-word version of my essay is a mere 300 words (2 min), but I think I got my point across.
If you’re interested in listening, here’s the podcast.
Warning: clicking on the link will take you straight to the recording, meaning my voice will immediately leap out of your computer. So, brace yourself, adjust the volume, close your office door, whatever you need to do…I found it a little startling myself ; )
PS. Still blogging for Time Magazine (insert sound of panting here…) but sharing the load with another writer, so I’m a wee bit less stressed. Just one more week to go!
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.