The Big C

Picture from the Scar Project - Breast Cancer is Not a Pink Ribbon

Picture from the Scar Project – Breast Cancer is Not a Pink Ribbon

October being Breast Cancer Awareness month or something, you see little light pink ribbons sprouting wings everywhere, to ‘show support’.
I don’t get how the ribbon shows support but okay.

I am not a fan of pretty pink ribbons at the best of times, but in this specific case, i can’t help but wonder 1)why the gender stereotyping must follow women even in the ugly realms of cancer (I get it, it’s a WOMAN’s cancer, therefore RIBBON MUST BE PINK otherwise people won’t get it and the WORLD will end) and 2) why the constant need to gloss over the reality of things with sanitizing symbols. Now don’t get me wrong: i’m all for shedding light on the issue, all for urging women to go get that mammogram and all for teaching women to perform their self examination, even though it might lead to false alarms and scares. Better be safe than sorry. But I’m not for reducing all that is breast cancer to a ribbon during a month.

Also, I’m not at all in favour of the recuperation of the ribbon symbolizing breast cancer by corporate powers who on the one hand do not part with even a small portion of their huge profits to fund research and on the other hand produce items that are actually carcinogenic. ‘Cause Marketing’, they call it and it makes me want to puke all over them. The campaign ‘Think Before You Pink‘ exposes said companies, and provides a tool kit for activists who’d like to question the whole pink ribbon hoopla. Here’s an example:

EXAMPLE: In 2011, Susan G. Komen for the Cure commissioned a perfume called Promise Me that contains unlisted chemicals that are regulated as toxic and hazardous, have not been adequately evaluated for human safety, and have demonstrated negative health effects. Although Komen said they would reformulate future versions of the perfume, without official adoption of the precautionary principle, there is no guarantee that future versions would be better.

Make no bones about it, the cancer journey is not smooth and silky like a ribbon, it is brutal, and life altering and very, very fucking scary.
I am not a breast cancer survivor myself, so there’s only so many things I can say on the subject, but I am the daughter, the niece and the friend of many. Some have lost their battles against that ugly beast, some have won, but not without battle scars.
In the words of a friend survivor ‘first they cut you up, second they poison you and then they cure you’. Surgery, radiations, hormonal Therapy and chemotherapy, then, hopefully, cure. Such is the usual journey many women have to go through, and that is privileged women people, women living in high income countries and who have access to medical care. According to the World Health Organisation, breast cancer is usually detected in the very late stages in low to middle income countries, so there you have it: scores of women start off with a worse prognosis because of their socio-economic conditions, and even if the majority of cases happen in the higher income countries, 69% of deaths overall still occur in low and middle-income countries. How is that for a nice little ribbon?

The statistics for five years survival rates just keep going better and better in higher income countries, thanks to cancers being detected earlier and earlier and medical progress. Again according to the WHO, Breast cancer survival rates vary greatly worldwide, ranging from 80% or over in North America, Sweden and Japan to around 60% in middle-income countries and below 40% in low-income countries (Coleman et al., 2008). The low survival rates in less developed countries can be explained mainly by the lack of early detection programmes, resulting in a high proportion of women presenting with late-stage disease, as well as by the lack of adequate diagnosis and treatment facilities.

But women with breast cancer are everything but statistics. They’re women who tell you they instantly trusted their women doctor because ‘she wore nice shoes, so I figured I was in good hands’, they’re women who have to learn a whole new vocabulary (when they even have access to it, as not all women are equal in health care access and coverage) that they could have done without, PET scans, CT scans, Bone scan, MRI, hormonal therapy, metastases, stages and grades, herceptin, hormonal receptors, Tamoxifen and Aromasin, lumpectomy, mastectomy, recurrence, and the hysterical thing is that the list could go on and again, the women who get to learn about all these are actually the privileged ones, they’re women who cry as they’re being taken away for surgery, women who plainly tell you they’re scared, because, well, it is really pretty fucking scary. They’re women who reach out to one another to create a support system, or who decide to close up when it all becomes too much.

But they’re also women who go and cut their hair something fabulous, and tell you ‘i want to live’ with a resolve that honestly frightens, and women who find it in themselves to simply go on, just because they’re a bit like Beyonce shoving that cheating man out: Hey Cancer, you must not know ’bout me. I’ll kick your ass and its mother.

None of these experiences and feelings and grief and anger and hope can ever be encapsulated by a campaign or an article or a single narrative. Yes we need to talk about breast cancer, but we need to talk with and about the women and not just the disease, we need to make sure the gaps between women affected get reduced to the point of non existence. We need to be there for them so their fears get eased up, and we need to support their choices because it’s their lives and their own bodies, and that include the right to refuse a certain treatment sometimes without judgment or questions. In short, we have a lot of things to do, and they don’t include purchasing useless crap that might actually be harmful just because they have a pink ribbon on them.