October never fails to catch me by surprise with its emotional flood that ranges from unspeakable joy and gratitude to guilty irritation. Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a good thing, don't get me wrong. But being both a high risk breast cancer survivor and a sexual abuse survivor is tricky business, and, sometimes, I would just rather not see myself as a survivor of anything. But whether it be October or any other month of the year, surviving those two experiences are deeply interconnected and define my life, a fact I accept and embrace.
My dramatic eight months of treatment included a stem cell rescue, a type of bone marrow transplant, that offered not only my best hope of avoiding a future tangle with cancer, but a deep symbolic healing of the emotional wounds of abuse. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything because cancer taught me everything I know about life and death. And the other side of cancer is a beautiful place indeed.
Yet, when October dawns, I feel edgy and uncomfortable, even though I know its designation is to honor me and my fellow survivors and those we have lost in this terrible war. All my relevant anniversaries happen to fall right about the time the whole country turns pink, including my shocking and terrifying diagnosis in late September, surgery in early October, and first chemo treatment on Halloween. All of those detailed memories, smells, and experiences come over me like a wave every time I see the pink ribbon or a Race for the Cure flyer, even fourteen years later. Perhaps I prefer to remember my "healing" in a sterile transplant room as an almost mystical phenomenon without the burden of its realities. To be honest, October pink can take me to emotional places I never wanted to visit again.
But Sunday changed all that. An established football fan long before my son became an NFL team sports photographer, I was doing what I always do on Sundays -- watching the game. The field was dotted with brilliant splashes of October pink. Gloves and shoes on players, hat brims on coaches, and ribbons on uniforms and team shirts. A huge pink banner lined the boundary of one end zone. The very symbol of American macho maleness had adopted this particular symbol of American womanhood by acknowledging a disease that attacks the most visibly feminine part of ourselves, sending a clear message of respect, support and honor. Suddenly that pink looked pretty damned good to me. I felt like a part of something that had the power to change more than just the hold this disease has on our society, it had the power to change our gender culture. Now maybe the whole NFL campaign was the handiwork of a brilliant, persuasive marketing mind -- and maybe the players and coaches privately felt a little silly wearing their temporary pink gear -- but I prefer to take the optimistic view that they are really behind us, knowing there is a good chance that the disease has already touched their families in some way.
The final step in my transformation came during the game when the doorbell rang. There at my gate were two lovely young women, both wearing dark pink shirts, one holding a bunch of pink flowers. They smiled at me through the wrought iron and said they were planning to participate in the three day sixty mile walk for breast cancer soon and wondered if I would like to contribute to their fund raising efforts. I was so moved by their sweetness and sincerity, I found myself nodding yes, and asked them to wait while I went back inside. When I returned, they gratefully accepted my cash donation and offered me a beautiful long stemmed pink rose that somehow seemed the perfect symbol of not only what they were doing, but of what I had accomplished as well. I told them I was a survivor and thanked them for their efforts. I rarely reveal that in October to avoid all the attention, but was glad I did because their response towards me was so lovely and genuine, and, for the first time, I allowed myself to feel that support.
Now I am told that our local high school team will be wearing pink jerseys for this Friday's game, donated by our local NFL team. Only the second high school in the nation to wear the pink jerseys, the starting quarterback was quoted as saying that they are "pretty girly" but it's a great cause and "more than just a football game."
Isn't this how change occurs, how years of long held fears and emotional responses can melt away if given the opportunity of an open mind and heart? I'm still not shouting my survivorship credentials to the world. But my guilty irritation is gone and the unspeakable joy and gratitude part has taken over, thanks to the girls in pink at my gate who cared enough to come around, the NFL players who played in pink shoes and gloves, and acceptance of my hard-earned big shot status in a pink October world.