It’s October — aka “Breast Cancer Awareness Month.” Soon the fall colors — orange pumpkins, bronzed oaks, red maples — will clash with pervasive, pastel pinks. Optimistic, can-do, springy Pollyanna pinks. Everywhere. On indicted football players’ jerseys. On camo hunting jackets. On the back of the bus that just cut you off.
No one has written about the pinkness of breast cancer awareness better than essayist/activist Barbara Ehrenreich in “Smile, You’ve Got Cancer” in her book “Cancerland.” I won’t even try.
But I am about as aware of breast cancer as a gal can get. Two years ago, my dear partner was diagnosed with it and suddenly life became mammograms, MRIs, second opinions, mastectomies, chemo, radiation, hospital time and her darling bald head. Through it all she continued to work and, of course, organized a breast cancer support group of women she’d met since her diagnosis. Ten of them. She’s not a “Why me?” kind of gal.
Sitting shiva for one of the women in the support group, I was moved by the eulogy a mother gave for her daughter. The mother marveled that her 57-year-old daughter had never asked, “Why me?” When she asked her daughter about it, she said that she’d never asked, “Why me?” when things were good, so she didn’t feel she could ask it when things were bad.
As you might suspect, the research on lesbians with breast cancer has been slow in coming. Lesbians are often not included. A recent British study found that women’s skirt sizes can be a good predictor of breast cancer. Problem: lesbians don’t wear skirts. Study findings vary but correlate with straight women. Smoking, drinking, obesity and childlessness are factors.
Although it’s like talking to a fricking brick wall, I, and many others (see thebreastcancerfund.org) believe environmental factors play a part. On my totally Eastern medicine days, I think the stress of homophobia and the stress of fighting it, are also factors. I’m no scientist.
Who knows? Everyone and no one, it seems. The more they know, the more there is to know. Researchers have made as much progress on the molecular level as they probably can. The now frontier is genetic. What was once thought of as just one “Big C,” should not defined by affected body part, because cancer cells are as individual as those snowflakes. Too often while cancer metastasizes, research is silo-ized, pharmaceutized, academicized and limited to reducing the size of a tumor for six months, rather than finding a cure. In the support group, as women shared about their care, restrictions and medicines, it became obvious that there are no real standards of care.
Don’t get me wrong. I am very aware and very thankful for all the incredible researchers, doctors, nurses, care-givers, fund-raisers, scientists, sister-survivors, organizations (like Mautner Project in D.C.) and all the dear marchers, walkers, climbers, cyclists for the cause.
The year since my dear partner’s treatments ended has been a sustained physical, mental and emotional reclamation project. A year of fear and anger management. She is recovering remarkably. I think I am too until this pink time of year. You might as well wave a red flag in front of me. I take my cue from those blood red AIDS ribbons. I don’t want to march. I want to yell and scream, turn cars over, burn tires and shut down some CDC buildings. Less pink. More punk.
Kate Clinton is a humorist who has entertained audiences for more than 30 years.