I have mixed emotions about October. I used to love the changing of the air to crisp autumn, the crunch of leaves under my feet, the promise of pumpkins and cider and holidays just around the corner. But it was 104 degrees in Phoenix yesterday, with little relief in sight - not exactly comfort-food weather. I ate room-temperature soup for lunch the other day just to try to get myself in the mood; it didn't quite do the trick.
October also now brings with it a mix of trepidation for me and most other breast cancer survivors I know, as the world seems perpetually draped in pink for these thirty-one days. And it's not the color that turns my stomach in knots, or even the message of awareness blaring nonstop across the public airwaves. There may still be some people whose lives will be saved because they were not paying much attention to breast cancer (it wasn't more than a blip on my radar either before my diagnosis) - and this will be the October that woke them up, made them start paying attention to their bodies.
What irks me and other survivors is the commercialization of a deadly disease. It's the bumper sticker slogans asking us to "Save the Tatas," when this should really be about people's lives. As the month kicks off with football players donning pink ribbons and every other business shelling out pink products in the name of awareness, I am hoping that more and more of these campaigns get beyond the bumper stickers, beyond the hype of awareness. For those of us living with this disease - or beyond it - we are all too aware. Our families and friends are very aware. What we need is a cure, or at the very least, research toward better treatment options.
As I write this, a friend - a woman who has fought and beat Stage IV breast cancer three times already - is in the hospital fighting for her life again. The cancer has spread to her liver. She is 37 years old. When I was still in the throes of grief after learning of my recurrence, I was given this woman's information and told to call her. When we spoke, she told me she firmly believed she was here to encourage other women, to show them they can be stronger than cancer, and that she still has a lot of work left to do in this world. I don't know if she knows how much that conversation lifted me up out of some of my darkest days. She was and is such a beacon of hope for me and every other survivor who knows her. And what she needs is not another reminder dressed in pink, but rather funding for research into metastatic disease and how to stop it in its tracks.
Coincidentally, I had my tenth chemo infusion on Monday, October 1st. In two weeks I'll find out whether this new combination of drugs is working - and how well. As I sat in the green recliner Monday morning, a woman walked up to the nurse's station with tears streaming down her cheeks. She wore a scarf on her head. "Did you hear the news?" she said to one of the nurses. "The cancer is all gone - it's over." Even as I write this, I'm in tears thinking of how elated this survivor was, because I remember very clearly that feeling when I received that phone call last December telling me my cancer was gone.
I want to share just one other story, of a woman I met during my last round of chemo in mid-September. Her triple-negative, inflamattory breast cancer had spread to her muscles and skin, making the whole right side of her upper body immobile. Probably in her mid-50s, she was beautiful, with soft blonde hair and a big smile. She was worried about fitting into a dress for her daughter's wedding in January because treatment had made her gain twenty pounds. And the new treatment she was starting - as a last ditch effor to reduce the cancer so she could be admitted to a clinical trial - was going to make her lose her 17 months of hair growth again. She was upset she'd have to wear a wig to watch her daughter get married. She told me she is in constant pain. The doctors are at a loss, and I got the sense that she was just hoping to make it to January before she let go. While I didn't draw the luckiest card in the deck when it comes to cancer, this woman certainly put things in a new perspective for me. At least my cancer still has promising treatment options.
Painting the town pink - raising awareness - does little to save the more than 40,000 people who will lose their lives this year to breast cancer. Those of us living with this disease are pretty fed up with businesses who use our illness to make money in the name of awareness. But there are a few organizations who do good work - not just in October but throughout the year. They rely on this month to set their fundraising goals for the remaining eleven months. I implore you to do your research when buying a product with a pink ribbon on it - see where the money goes, how much to research new treatments, how much to actual patients who can't afford treatments or preventative care, how much to a business' bottom line.
And use this month as a reminder to be aware - not only of where your money goes but also of your body. It is the best indicator you have, and if something isn't right, you know it best.