Soon it will be October, otherwise known as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, in all of its pink glory and marketing campaigns. I felt like I was fighting my own personal war when I was treated for breast cancer almost three years ago.
When I participated in a breast cancer walk last year I was given a bright pink shirt with the word "survivor" in bold on the back. Walkers were encouraged to wear it so that at the conclusion of the walk and celebratory cheer of the funds raised, we survivors would all march together as a collective vision of hope and success. I almost didn't wear the shirt. I felt awkward being paraded that way, as though I were a shining example of not dying. But I allowed myself that momentary bit of cheer. I had indeed gotten through so much, and dammit, I wanted to be happy at least for the day. The shirt is now tucked away as a souvenir, and I wouldn't dare wear it again because it does seem insincere to presume my survivorship is certain. It's possible that those of us who get to live might be prone to survivor's guilt. It's no wonder we might feel this way when we know that while many survive cancer, some don't. It's scary stuff.
Probably one of the worst offenses is when someone proclaims that the "gift of cancer" made them a better person. I am guilty of such an offense, and I understand that it could insult those who feel traumatized, victimized and heartbroken because their lives have been touched by cancer. I felt those things too (and still do) and obviously would not have wanted such a gift, no matter how enlightened I may have felt at times. At face value it's completely absurd to consider something like cancer (or any life-threatening illness) a gift. But I've heard over and over again comments from survivors who feel it was a wake-up call, or a call to action, or a realization of what is most important in their lives. And I've heard from others who get a fierce look in their eyes and emphatically state that cancer was certainly not a gift and they were already doing just fine, thank you very much. I get it.
In my book What a Blip: A Breast Cancer Journal of Survival and Finding the Wisdom, (John Hunt Publishing, December, 2014), I do celebrate and I felt like an improved version of myself at some point. I developed more gratitude than ever despite the hand I had been dealt. I also describe the heavy emotional impact and how utterly ugly I felt. Some of my experience is chronicled here on The Huffington Post and looking back, it is easy to see that I was desperate, terrified and reaching out, wanting others to know what the hell this was all about.
My treatment included the fairly new drug Herceptin, and some newer medications are targeting the disease with even more accuracy. After all I went through I did feel like a walking miracle, lucky to be alive, hopeful, more grounded and slightly less concerned with the little annoyances of daily life. I felt I finally did understand the word "fight." Yes, a year later, I walked in a cancer walk and I was damned glad I could, despite the obnoxious sea of pink and my own conflicted feelings about wearing a survivor shirt. I did feel like a warrior (on my good days), even though such a sentiment implies it was a battle within my total control, which we know very well is not necessarily the case.
It is easy to become discouraged and downright furious and disillusioned when it comes to the seemingly snail's pace of breast cancer treatments and prevention research which have improved from yesteryear, but not enough to unilaterally celebrate quite yet. The documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. is a must-see for anyone who wants to understand the pink culture of breast cancer fundraising. I was grateful for the opportunity to raise some funds at the walk and unite with others who have been affected by this devastating disease. It sure did feel great to get out there and move my body after nine months of healing from treatment and surgeries, and witness the strength of thousands of people who have been through or affected by cancer. Of course it is crucial to investigate where your dollars go. Think Before You Pink.org provides some handy guidelines.
For now, I wear my battle scars with both humility and triumph, knowing that there is no promise of tomorrow, for anyone.
For an informative and provocative overview on the war on cancer, have a look at Our Feel Good War on Breast Cancer by Peggy Orenstein.
To learn more about my forthcoming book please visit www.AliciaGarey.com.