October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the pink ribbon is everywhere. As a one-year breast cancer survivor, I am thankful for campaigns designed to bring cancer to the country’s consciousness and raise funds for research, support, and hopefully one day, a cure.
Four beloved women in my family have battled breast cancer, so I was no stranger to it. And while our family isn’t one to sweep problems under the rug, I don’t remember hearing much.
There was a diagnosis and a treatment plan. We would pray and stay positive, and it would all be fine. Just fine. I knew my mom was scared and the surgeries were disfiguring. That sums up the extent of my breast cancer “awareness”.
Fast forward to February of 2021… I went for my annual mammogram, after which I received a clean report in the mail. Skimming that letter, “no abnormalities…blah, blah, blah”, then tossing it casually into the recycling basket is now one of those freeze-frame life memories for me.
Eight weeks later, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer after I accidentally found a large tumor in the bathtub.
That is the moment when my personal breast cancer awareness campaign began.
My schooling started at the very first appointment. The oncologist said, “You have cancer.” I heard, “You’re going to die.” Through my shocked fog, I made out that I would start 20 weeks of chemo right away and when, by instinct, I pulled up my work calendar to schedule it, she laughed out loud.
She wasn’t trying to be insensitive. She just knew the rules of the game, and I did not. I was foolish enough to think that I could have cancer (during COVID, no less) and a life.
I didn’t know that the C-word touches every area of your life – physical, mental, emotional, financial, relational, spiritual, vocational – and works its way into all your soul’s cracks and crevices.
It didn’t occur to me that, of all the emotions cancer patients feel, shame would be the most pervasive. Inexplicably, the feeling that I had done something terribly wrong flooded over me practically from the moment I got the news and still stings my cheeks hot when someone I know doesn’t recognize me or I return to the cancer center for checkups.
I didn’t understand how many times within the system charged with helping me heal, I would feel like a project instead of a person, a problem to be solved instead of a complex and fragile human being.
Cancer’s power to isolate, worsened by COVID, shocked my system. Due to compromised immunity and myriad chemo side effects, I worked remotely, rarely spent time with family and friends, and was forced to give up my hobbies and interests. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t see a way forward and only wanted to go back to the life I loved.
I had no idea that I was one of about 264,000 women in the United States diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Unbeknownst to me, survivors were all around me and come from all walks of life. Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate.
I became painfully aware of the lack of emotional and spiritual support available to cancer patients and their caregivers. So, we were forced to find our own way. We cried, hugged, prayed – total strangers only moments before - in the hospital waiting room and wig shop. We even laughed in our plastic recliners and clapped and cheered every time one of us rang the bell.
So now, breast cancer awareness means something very different to me. It means that screening tests aren’t foolproof, and bald is beautiful (except on me, we all say) and far too many women will face and fight this disease. I understand what it means to be part of the sacred sisterhood no one wants to join.
The pink ribbon stands for the struggle that broke me wide open and stripped me bare, that turned my life and soul inside out, the stalker that still tries to break into my every minute thoughts, threatening with images of more tearing down and never rebuilding.
But the pink ribbon also makes me proud, in the way that wells up when suffering raw with others clarifies and intensifies your purpose and path, when the things that really matter start to shine so brightly you can see your reflection in them while the fake, flimsy things our culture holds so high shred right before your eyes.
Breast cancer awareness indeed.