Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Pink Ribbon Frustrations

I’ve been reading a lot of letters lately. I save all of the letters I get, and even have them fairly organized, so I was recently able to look through all of the letters that my mother gave me, from my fifteenth birthday card, to a note that seems to be the result of a disagreement we had last summer. Inevitably, upon reading the letters, I cry. One letter in particular she sent to me in Nashville shortly after her mastectomy last October. She thanked me to helping her during the recovery process, and wrote how confident she was that she would get through her illness “with flying colors.”

Reading the letter last night got me thinking about how this is breast cancer awareness month, and so every other product that’s for sale, from Cheerios to body wash to sandals, is available with a pink ribbon on it during the month of October, and everyone seems to be raising money for breast cancer charities. It’s a great cause, but I also find it to be a little frustrating and sad. The ad campaigns always focus on survivors, and there are pictures of women walking scores of miles, leaping for joy, proudly baring their bald heads. It’s nice, but it’s also so far separated from how my family experienced breast cancer, that I find myself recoiling from the pink ribbon as often as I embrace it. Breast cancer was not exercise and joy and pride for us, it was gruesome and slow and horrifically cruel. Buying a pink bottle of shampoo might technically support breast cancer research, but it seems a little…inappropriate?

And then, too, there are the incredibly thoughtless things people say about cancer. I’ve heard survivors telling others that they had to survive, they were fighters, they were determined to beat this thing! Well that’s good, but what does that say about my mother? She wasn’t a fighter? She wasn’t determined enough? And is the logic there that if someone isn’t fighting with great determination, if someone loses hope at some point for some reason, then that person deserves to die?

There's a narrative that we all have in our heads about certain types of cancer, and probably breast cancer most of all. I think the pink ribbon has been instrumental in making breast cancer out to be this rough but ultimately okay patch in most people's lives, and I feel a little cheated and misled by that. Rough and misleading is doesn't even cover what we were feeling on the best days.


Ilana J said...


I am so sorry for you and your family.

Love, Ilana

Amy Guth said...

This is a topic we often discuss at home, too, and a source of great frustration, particularly for my husband, as his mother's death was also the result of breast cancer. We attended a breast cancer fundraiser running event and were amazed at the win/lose sort of language being used and the overt celebration of surviving at the expense of almost zero mention of women (and men) who did not.

I've wondered before about writing some sort of speakers' guide/media guidelines paper on the subject. Something greatly needed, I feel.

Leah said...

I've seen a lot of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America ads and have been thinking the same thing... They didn't fight harder, they didn't want it more..

Just total agreement... and always lots of love to you.