It's that time of year again. Breast Cancer month. It begs the questions do I? Don't I? To pink or not to pink?
I realize the topic of breast cancer month can bring out some fierce emotions so the first thing I want to say is, what I'm writing here is not about stirring the pot or getting up on my soap box. I really just strive to encourage all of us, myself included, to look more closely at the individual cancer fighters that breast cancer month fights for and remember that for those fighters, the medical staff, the friends, family and caregivers, every month is breast cancer month.
As a stage 3a breast cancer fighter/survivor (I'm conflicted on which is the correct word), I have really had to learn how to stand back from all of the attention that October shines on breast cancer and pink ribbons and look at it with a wide perspective and an open mind. The one thing I keep reminding myself is that people truly do want to help and they are looking for guidance on how they can provide that help. Like any product with great publicity and easy access, the larger benefits and organizations wrangle the bulk of attention and funds. With a true desire to make a difference, people pull out their check books, buy their pink products with pride and feel great about their tax deductible donation. I get it.
The morning after I was diagnosed with breast cancer I remember opening my bathroom cabinet to find the pink hair dryer I'd purchased a few years earlier looking back at me. It had been a wonderful purchase. I was helping to fight breast cancer and dry my hair. Bada bing! And then there I was on April 14, 2011, standing in front of that cabinet with an enormous tumor in my breast, a stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis and faced with a blow dryer that seemed to be screaming at me with the reality of it all, not to mention the irony in the fact that I would not have any hair to use that blow dryer on for a very long time. I knew nothing about breast, or any other type of cancer. I did go to my yearly exams, but I didn't do monthly self-exams. I had no idea where or how much of the money I'd spent on that dryer had gone. All I could think was, you're a smart woman Allison, how could a smart woman be so stupid?
That feeling was compounded after my mastectomy. I was diagnosed in April, just in time to kick off the season of cancer walks. I could barely walk across the room so there was no way I'd be participating in any of them. I did call one of the groups to ask if I could simply be there to feel the energy but not walk. They said no. I will not name the organization, but it's a big one and I was heartbroken. After a few email exchanges and phone calls that simply led to them continually asking me to register in time to get a free camera, a supervisor sent a form letter telling me they would drive me if need be, but by then it was too late. I had experienced the assault that type of rejection brings and I wanted no part of that walk or any other.
Shortly after that, a dear friend sent me a shirt from a breast cancer walk. He had walked without telling me while I was recovering from my mastectomy. When I opened the box to see the sign stating who he had walked for with my name on it and a t-shirt for me I was overcome with emotion. There was no stopping the tears. It meant more to me than I can describe. After I pulled myself together, I took a beat and realized there was no way I was getting that t-shirt on. I could not begin to lift my arms above my head and if I did get it on the style of it would only highlight the two different size breasts I would be working with through treatment and the drain that was coming out of my side. The conflict began.
I spent much of my mastectomy recovery time applying to various support organizations for any help I might be able to get, financially or otherwise, only to be turned down by all of them. Later that year, just as I was completing chemo, the disclosures of how much money the people who ran many of those organizations were making was let out. That was a tough one.
My feeling was, and still is, if there are people who fall into categories that a given organization does not want to help, fine, but please don't encourage anyone who has just been through surgery and is fighting for their life take the time to fill out applications just so you can deny them and then later place them on your fundraising mailing list. The physical energy is a lot and the emotional hit of false hope and rejection is more devastation in a situation that is already scary beyond what any person should ever have to experience.
Needless to say, it didn't take long before I was fired up. I didn't want to see pink anywhere, but of course it was everywhere. I was pissed. Pink made me angry for a long time.
In the past year, I've experienced quite an exploration and evolution of feelings on the color pink and beyond, which all lead back to an important fact that makes me smile, people have good intentions and they want to help, but everyone doesn't know what to do. As cancer fighters we need to let people know what they can do and what the organizations that they contribute to are doing, or not doing, for us.
As hard as it has been for me at times, I'm learning that the color pink has become the doorway, and that we can all be a part of what exists on the other side of that doorway. This is a good lesson that I'm reminded of daily having met an amazing woman named Rayellen who puts on the Sisters Crush Breast Cancer event in Napa Valley, CA every year. Rayellen's background in the medical field brings wisdom and her event raises money that is dispersed between local charities that help breast cancer fighters pay their rent and utility bills as well as obtain some of the day-to-day services that can really nickel and dime you when you're in treatment. When Rayellen invited me to attend her event this year, I accepted the invitation, which I followed by a comment about my issue with wearing pink. Calmly and without a blink she simply said, "but that's what people know" and she's right. Pink is what people know. Pink is what we have to work with and Rayellen is doing such great work that I'm not only attending her event, I'm working with her on it. Our partnership has led to my introduction to another pink logo organization doing great work called Send Me on Vacation which sends women and men just out of treatment on a vacation with their families free of charge. These are both organizations that could have and would have helped me. They both fall within my comfort zone, but there are so many that don't. Most of them don't. And I still don't wear pink or pink ribbons. I'm not sure I ever will.
It's a tough one over all. Looking through all the pink to find a breast cancer organization that I can really get behind often feels like looking for a specific blue patch in the sky. For me, the lesson is two fold. Be open to all of the work people are doing to fight breast cancer and before you write your check, lace your shoes or put on your best pink shirt be sure you know where that money is going and take a moment to educate yourself about why it's going there. Think about what breast cancer fighters and researches are truly going through and what they really need. Writing a check is easy. Knowing is what's most important. As a one world community, together, let's know more.
The black and white photos of me shown here were generously shot by Isaac Matthew White and are part of a collection taken over the course two years. Each image is intended to provide a window to others on what breast cancer looks and feel like through the various phases of treatment.