October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of decades.
Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, I thought I was doing my part: I ran in the Denver Race for the Cure pretty regularly for several years (even organizing large groups a few times through work), donned pink attire at work events, and blasted things on social media like “Save the Tatas” or reminders to do your self exams. One year at a Race for the Cure event, my friend and I stayed to watch the post-run celebration, where survivors were recognized in groups by their number of years post cancer. I remember crying alongside my friend at the emotion of all of the women who had been impacted, and cheering wildly with the crowd for the ones who been cancer-free for 10 years and on up.
But even then, breast cancer awareness was a remote, abstract idea- something to promote, cheerfully raise money for, and assume would never happen to me. I could do an event once a year and rock the fun t-shirt and feel like I was making a difference.
And I’m not saying that any of that is bad or that it didn’t matter, because it certainly helped. However, from the lens of a survivor, it’s just different now.
I found my lump in October 2017, at the height of Breast Cancer awareness month. Not because I was doing a monthly self-exam like I should or because “I ❤ Boobies”, but because it happened to be in a really obvious place and I simply brushed up against it. It didn’t hurt, but when it didn’t go away after a few days, I knew something was wrong. My PCP took the issue seriously, despite my young age and no family history, and got me the care I needed. I was lucky.
I finished my cancer treatment at the end of August 2018. That October was my first experience of “Pinktober” from a different perspective. I was still tired from treatment, definitely depressed, and not ready to face the trauma of what had just happened to me. The constant messages from well-meaning people congratulating me on my survivorship hurt. I was still struggling with my new body and trying to come to terms with the fact that while treatment was over, I now had to learn to live again. It’s a hard transition. Just because treatment is over doesn’t mean you’re done dealing with it. Not even close.
In October 2019, I was just coming off my Four Way English Channel swim. Good Morning America, with Strahan, Sara and Keke had me on to kick off their Breast Cancer Awareness month. The studio was filled with pink and the girls were decked out in pink attire. It was huge honor to be on the show, but underneath the whirlwind of fun and excitement, it was just… hard. I couldn’t quite figure out why, I just knew that I was “supposed” to be celebrating and helping to raise awareness, but my heart wasn’t there.
It wasn’t until last year, 2020, two full years out of treatment, that I think I was finally far enough removed to truly understand: My perspective had switched and October has truly taken on a different feel for me. It no longer feels like a celebration to raise awareness, but instead, this huge burden to shoulder.
As a survivor, people look to you to put on a brave face, to be the voice saying “look what happens when treatment works!” They expect a positive, grateful attitude, with a fierce battle cry, “Stop the war on my rack!”
I always want to lend my voice to breast cancer awareness- it’s a huge issue that impacts thousands of women. The American Cancer Society estimates that over 280,000 women will be newly diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021. It’s the second most common type of cancer among women (behind skin cancer) and the second mostly deadly cancer in women (behind lung cancer). Clearly, more research is needed. One in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, and those numbers are on the rise. We need help.
I want my voice heard. But, I want it heard year-round, not just in October, when it’s my “designated time.” And no longer are the cries to “Save Second Base” funny and cute. They are a painful reminder that we didn’t save second base for me, except for an artificially recreated breast that causes me pain and discomfort daily.
The pink washing is hard to handle. It’s all cute and girly and fluffy, with reminders to “fight like a girl”. I’m not that girly, cancer is dark, and I have moved away from battle-like language when it comes to cancer diagnoses and treatment (that’s another rant for another day). And guess what, men get breast cancer, too.
Breast cancer isn’t a month-long event for me. It’s a year-long, every minute of every day ordeal that often leaves me sad and frustrated, even now. Seen me swim lately? That fake breast is still altering my shoulder muscles and is so tight I can’t make my normal arm motion, causing me to slap at the water, which is starting to create a good amount of shoulder pain. (We’re working on fixing this, but it’s going to take some work!) I get cramps in my ribs after a long swim session. I have mild lymphedema, so shirts fit differently on my right side than on my left. I’m limited in bras and tops and dresses that I want to wear- so many things are now are either uncomfortable or make me feel awkward and self-conscious.
And I don’t like to complain: That’s all mild compared to what other women go through.
Breast cancer treatment is traumatic. It’s long, seemingly never-ending, and full of painful discomfort. For me, it was five months of chemo, two major surgeries with extended recovery time, and five weeks of radiation. And months of physical and emotional recovery after that. Treatment takes your hair. It takes your breasts. It changes nearly every aspect of your body, on the inside and out. For many younger patients, it takes or severely impacts our ability to have children. It’s a brutal monster- and no matter who you are or how positive you try to be, it will break you.
Breast cancer is not cute. It’s not a funny, clever slogan. It’s my everyday life. And it makes me sick when I think about others going through any of the things I had to go through. It’s not fair to any of us. No one deserves it.
So while I am always appreciative of awareness and fundraising for something that is deeply personal, it’s still hard to face October. It’s hard to see the smiles and pink confetti over something that caused me so many tears and so much pain. It’s triggering to see photos of other survivors and their scars. It’s hard to be recognized as a survivor, when thousands of women, especially minorities and those in underserved communities, are still dying or dealing with metastatic breast cancer at higher rates. It’s hard to have a whole month that is constantly reminding me that my cancer could return, or could still impact my mother, my aunts, my sisters, my friends.
I struggle every day with my cancer diagnosis and October’s cries to “save a life, grope your wife” ring shallow and frustrating. Breast cancer patients and survivors need your love every month. We need your donations to research all year long.
Yes, please go on with your Breast Cancer Awareness celebrations and t-shirts and pink boas. We need that and I AM grateful. But, as much as we need your help, it hurts some of us, too. Please don’t be offended if I don’t take part in your races or celebrations, if I back off, or skip liking your Facebook posts and Instagram stories. It’s a hard journey and we all handle it differently.
Just know, I love and appreciate your support in October, but I’ll be here in November, still praying for a cure.