Writing in the Raw: My Brush with Breast Cancer
The following post contains words I wrote on October 1, 2012. It is unedited and raw. I happened to stumble upon it when looking for another post draft I wrote. Sometimes, I write my drafts in Word and then paste it into WordPress. I re-read the words and decided to post this.
I have not said this publicly, but at the time I wrote this, I’d just been informed that there was something suspicious on my recent mammogram and that I had to go in for a second mammogram and an ultrasound. Thankfully, the suspicious something turned out to be a benign cyst, which is actually normal for a woman my age who is in perimenopause. Perimenopause comes before menopause. It’s the part before the menopausal symptoms we all know and dread come forth. I might get the occasional hot flash, but I mainly have noticed changes in my cycle. PMS has gotten worse. I suppose it has to get it’s last bits in before the other stuff starts. PMS probably gets worse so when you’re drenched in sweat from hot flashes or night sweats, you’re wishing you could just have PMS instead.
I wrote down my thoughts that day because October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the day before my follow-up, I was experiencing some very strong emotions. On top of that, I was also waiting to get my psychiatric medications re-evaluated. Anxiety and the unknown do not mix well. For me, it’s a very potent and combustible combination of fear and nervousness and over-thinking. There is a lot of catastrophizing in the words I wrote on October 1 of last year. Catastrophizing is one of the distorted thought processes covered in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). I was trying not to make this bigger than what it was, but I wasn’t successful.
This is just as much about fear of the unknown as it is a glimpse into the head of a person with a mental illness that is not treated properly. In this case, I could not take the meds I should have been on and knew worked. This all happened before I ended up in the hospital and had a few epiphanies about myself and my mental health.
I hate all the pink that comes with October. I’m not a fan of all the pink because I feel that we’ve had enough awareness and we need more action. I believe that we need to find the cause of breast cancer and also focus on prevention. We aren’t going to do that when the largest breast cancer charity is in bed with companies that manufacture products containing chemicals that are known to cause cancer and these same companies slap pink on them in order to sell these products in the name of “awareness”.
I also feel that it takes attention away from other types of cancers and giving to charities that fund research for those.
The jury is still out on Movember, where men grow out mustaches to bring awareness about men’s health issues.
I highly recommend watching the documentary, Pink Ribbons, Inc. It will change how you think about cause marketing, particularly October and breast cancer awareness.
Now, for my essay/rant/ramblings…
About a week ago, I received a phone call that most women don’t want to get. “Hi. We found something on your mammogram. You need to have a follow up.”
When I heard those words, my stomach sank to my feet and my nerves became overloaded with that familiar and unwelcome buzz and energy I can’t dissipate. I felt like a caged tiger as I waited for my husband to come home from work so I could tell him the news. He was barely in the door when I burst into tears and collapsed into his arms, choking out the words. “They found something on my mammogram.”
He tried to reassure me that everything would be okay and it doesn’t mean that I actually have cancer. I tried to be realistic, but as it is with an anxiety disorder, you always dwell on the “what ifs” until your imagination runs away from you and heads to another continent.
Today is October 1. I woke up this morning, I got on the internet and saw…pink. A year ago, I would have rolled my eyes. I’m not a fan of what is known as . Today, the pink just pisses me off.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For 31 days, everything turns pink whether you like it or not. I’m not a fan of the pinkwashing. Quite a few breast cancer patients and survivors aren’t fans, either. Cancer is a commodity. It’s a marketing tool. It reduces something very scary into a neat little package topped with a cute pink bow.
October 1st was the day before my follow-up mammogram. On that day, my dislike of all the pink spiked dramatically.
I sat in my living room and wrote. It was the only way to bleed off my resentment and my nervousness. In addition to my follow-up mammogram, I had an appointment with my therapist in order to talk to her about referring me to a psychiatrist to have my anxiety re-evaluated. Some of my anxiety was the result of a medication change. Having this unknown in front of me made things worse.
I wrote of my feelings. As the day went on, and there was more of this pink crap shoved in my face, I went back and kept writing. It went like this:
I resent that my fears are packaged up with a pretty pink bow and it’s a brand, a commodity. I resent that once a person, or even possibly me, receives a positive diagnosis of cancer, the world thinks it has the right to tell us how we’re supposed to feel. We’re supposed to “fight” and be brave. We’re not allowed to have bad days or cry if we feel like or be scared.
We’re no longer individuals. The world insists that I or anyone else will forever be identified by our tumors.
Sorry, but I don’t need you to tell me how I’m supposed to feel. I sure as shit don’t need you to tell me who I am, either.
Right now, I’m going to be scared whether the rest of the world likes it or not. I don’t want to be brave right now. I want to cry. I want to feel sorry for myself and I want to be afraid. Because I am afraid as I stand in front of a Very Big, Very Black Hole. I can’t see anything in this hole. Whatever light that spills from where I am now does not bleed past the very edges of this dark place. There is no light. The light may come in a few days to reveal what I will face or reveal that everything is normal. It will be either good or it will be bad. It will either be business as usual or something that will fundamentally change my life forever.
Unless you’ve been in my shoes, no well-intentioned advice will ease my mind. I don’t do well with the unknown as it is. I don’t need other people telling me how I’m supposed to feel.
I have to be scared. I have to cry. I have to wallow in self-pity. I have to do all of this because I can’t be brave until I know what it’s like to be scared first. I can’t be brave until I know exactly what it is I’m facing.
I see the ads. I hate them already. I want to go to the web site of the auto manufacturer, the jeans manufacturer, the yogurt maker, the kitchen appliance brand and tell them to all fuck off.
Buying pink jeans or yogurt cups with pink lids won’t help me. I’d rather you didn’t.
Regardless of how my situation turns out, I’d rather you take the money you were going to spend on said pink item and donate directly charities that fund research. Don’t donate it to Komen, either. I stopped supporting them long before the Planned Parenthood debacle explicitly because they are the worst pinkwashing offenders and because so little of what they raise actually goes towards research.
I am aware that breast cancer exists. I don’t need to be reminded every October. Enough “awareness”. More answers. Especially for people who have metastasis breast cancer. That’s when your previous cancer returns and spreads into other organs. None of this “awareness” extends towards this cancer, which has a very high mortality rate. They are very aware of the existence of breast cancer. Get them some answers.
Pink shirts, pink this, and pink that won’t help me. It won’t help the people who actually have this. It’s slacktivism. It’s an effortless way to guilt people into taking the path of least resistance and to make them feel good about themselves by leading them to believe they are actually helping.
All the pink makes me feel like a victim.
I don’t want to be identified by something I have or might have. I am not anxiety. I am not depression. But I if this turns out to be the dreaded C word, I am not a tumor, either. Fuck you, Komen for starting this. I am not a fucking brand.
I want to go online today, this October 1, and on behalf of those who have breast cancer and those like me who are in limbo, waiting to find out one way or another what that suspicious density on my mammogram is, and shout “Fuck you!” to all the pink, to all those well-intentioned people telling us we have to “fight like girls” and “make sure to check our ta-tas”, to those marketers who reduced something scary and possibly fatal to something girlish, infantile, princess-like and cute.
Excuse me for a moment. I need to shout something.
THEY’RE NOT BOOBIES. THEY’RE NOT TA-TA’S. THEY ARE BREASTS AND THEY ARE MINE. STOP TAKING THIS VERY ADULT PROBLEM AND MY VERY GROWN UP WOMAN PARTS AND MAKING THEM CUTESY. THEY ARE NOT CUTESY. THEY ARE MINE. YOU DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO TELL ME HOW I AM SUPPOSED TO FEEL. I AM NOT A GIRL. I AM AN ADULT. I AM A GROWN WOMAN. I AM NOT A CHILD.
I wish I could speak of this out loud. I don’t want my family finding this out on the Internet. But I’m not ready and very unwilling to talk about it publicly because people will tell me how I am supposed to feel.
This pink and girly stuff does nothing to allay the nagging thought that I may have this parasite inside of me that is feeding off of me, not only gorging on the healthy cells, but slowly consuming my womanhood and my femininity and, God forbid, my sexuality. I don’t want to lose a breast. I don’t want someone to touch it.
I know how I will feel. I’ve thought about this for a few days. I don’t want to feel less than a woman. A breast may be a body part, but it’s not. It’s part of being a woman. We’re judged by the size of our breasts. Sometimes we are defined by the size of our breasts. Breasts are objectified. They are sexualized. They are nourishment. They sustain life. They are power. I’m not sure I want to lose my power.
Pink ribbons can’t take that fear away.
I don’t want it infantilized. I don’t want to be reduced to victim. I don’t want to be looked at with pity over something I have.
I want to go to people with other cancers and say, “Hey, I support you, too.” And then I want to add, “I wish I had your cancer or might have your cancer because then the world would leave me alone and not tell me how I’m supposed to deal with it.”
I happened to read a blog written by a woman who has since passed away from metastatic breast cancer. Like me, she has the same anger about the commercialization of this disease. I saw a picture, an ugly picture. A picture of a woman who had one breast removed. I saw that and choked up. Not for the woman in the picture. I choked up in dread with the knowledge that this could be me. Would my husband still want to touch me? Or look at me? Or even want to be with me? Or still call me hot? As I thought about this possibility of this changing, I nearly burst into tears.
It may not happen, but it upsets me. None of this feel-good pink ribbon wrapped bullshit does anything to help me feel better about that. And in the end, it’s not about how he feels about me. It’s about how I feel about myself. If I ever have to lose a breast, I will feel ugly and unattractive and less than a woman.
No amount of useless pink bullshit will change that. It will not make me feel better. It will not bring back what I may lose.
Cancer, not even the cloud of possibly having it, is not cheerful. It is not joyful.
Stop making it such.
In all of this rambling, I realized why I am so angry. I can’t win. I’m judged by my breasts, the size, the firmness. My breasts are objects for male gratification. If God forbid I have cancer, then my breasts become objectified for cash and marketing purposes. They remain objectified as long as I am a “fighter”. If something goes wrong and the worst happens, then I’m a failure because I didn’t survive.
When in the hell do I get to be me?
The idea of being objectified over my breasts in ways other than sex scares me more than the prospect of having cancer.
THEY ARE MINE.
I wish I could crawl in a hole for the entire month of October with a month’s supply of chocolate, coffee, cheesecake, my meds, my iPod and writing materials so I don’t have to listen to this. I would crawl out on November 1.
I still feel this way, minus the anxiety about the unknown. When venting, I realized that as women, our breasts are not ours because we have other people telling us what we are supposed to do with them or trying to define us and judge us by them. If you’re small chested, you’re not good enough. If you don’t breast-feed, you’re a bad mother. If you have large breasts or enhanced ones, you’re superficial and shallow. Sometimes, you’re fat.
Everyone seems to think they have the right to tell us what to do with our boobs.
Angelina Jolie made the decision to have a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery because she carries a gene that makes her chances of getting breast cancer much higher. She’s even being criticized for having the mastectomy. Even she can’t get away from people telling her what she is supposed to do with her breasts. One of the most ridiculous things I heard regarding Ms. Jolie’s choice was someone from the Kale Nazi Brigade chiding her for having the surgery when she should have “ate more broccoli and cut chemicals out of her life”.
In the time since I wrote this, Komen still hasn’t recovered from the Planned Parenthood debacle. I didn’t write about politicizing breast cancer because at the time, the controversy had died down.
Since then, I’ve also decided to make some lifestyle changes. Those benign cysts were enough to scare me into making changes. I’m slowly, but surely, changing direction to take the Road More Crunchy. I’ve cut down drastically on processed foods. I make a lot of my own cleaners. I do yoga and I meditate.
I don’t do this just because I had a brush with cancer. I also do these things because of my depression and anxiety.
Speaking of which, I don’t sound as anxious now as I did then, but I still have anxiety and while I manage it, I still have work to do. At the time that I’m typing this paragraph, I’m dealing with a potential relapse and it takes a lot of energy I don’t have to push back and not let the depression and anxiety take control of me again. I have strength, resolve and a new set of coping skills to draw on that I didn’t have a year ago.
If given a choice, and I know this sounds morbid and weird, I think I’d rather have the mental illness than breast cancer. Judgement and stigma are a lot easier to deal with than the world thinking it has the right to dictate to you how you’re supposed to feel about it. At least it is for me. Yes, I get angry when I hear myths and judgments about mental illness and the treatment, but at least during Mental Illness Awareness Month, I don’t feel like I’m a commodity. I’m glad there are no ribbon campaigns for mental illness. I would rather write a blog post and erase stigma by example and sharing my story.