I Went To A Cancer Party -- And I Liked It

Glasses with champagne on an abstract background
Glasses with champagne on an abstract background

My post last week about my feelings surrounding the pink ribbon as the sole symbol of my cancer roused quite a reaction in many folks -- online and in-person. In the interest of not only continuing the dialogue, but also full disclosure, I have to tell you that I went to a pink breast cancer party this past Friday. Yes, I drank the pink Kool-Aid. Well, actually, it was a Cosmopolitan, that most notorious of pink cocktails. The event was pink-themed, had pink in the name and everyone was clad in pink. Pink, pink, pink.

My reason for attending was that my oncologist was the chair of the board that organized the event. In the wake of my article and all of my feelings about pinking my cancer, I was certainly skeptical, but this is a man who has been my hero and my friend through the past year of treatment. He has answered frantic text message after text message, never failed to treat me with kindness and respect throughout and has me sitting cancer-free at this moment. The event was a fundraiser and celebration for the cancer center where I was treated with chemo and I could not see saying "no" after all they have seen me through.

What I saw surprised me. I saw the people who have held my hand, poked me with needles, taken my vital signs and treated my cancer, and I saw them for once in a non-medical way. They were not in white coats and sneakers or scrubs -- they were laughing, eating and drinking cocktails. They were dancing and smiling. The light was not fluorescent and there was no heaviness or chemical smell in the air. There was no beeping of heart monitors and blood pressure machines. The tone was joyous and celebratory. Have you ever danced with your doctor? I did. And it was fantastic, because it removed us from the context of gloom and sterility that is our norm when dealing with cancer. We laughed our heads off and sang "Stayin' Alive" at the top of our lungs.

I was able to connect on a human and happy level with some of the people that have helped me through the most difficult time in my life. As one survivor said in her speech that night, it takes an entire village of people to help someone through cancer. This was my time to toast to that village, to smile and dance in that town square. I am grateful to have had this opportunity.

I realized last Friday night that celebration is a hugely vital part of cancer. As cancer patients, we require it to mark milestones, and we desire it for release. I see now the need for at least two different modes of events: first, the type that educate, reach out and inform the public of prevention and information on the disease, and secondly, the type that allow a moment of glee in what is an otherwise unendingly difficult illness. I felt a truly unexpected catharsis in the three hours I spent with the other shorthairs (as I call post-chemo folks like myself!), nurses and doctors and even the rich donors.

But what about all the pink? And there was quite a bit of pink. As many argued in the well-thought-out comments about my last piece, the color pink is said to be used as an attempt to remind women dealing with breast cancer that they are still womanly and feminine; that we are still part of Team Lady even though we have gone through chemotherapies and mastectomies. While I believe this to be a genuine sentiment, it still does not seem, to me, to make the most sense. When someone has leukemia, do we overwhelm them with red (the color of blood), for example? Of course not. Just constantly inundating a woman with pink does not necessarily reconnect her with the loss of her 'femininity'; from my perspective, it tends to serve more as an incessant reminder of losses suffered.

Very simply, pink is steeped in a very clear symbolism of the idolatry of that which is traditionally feminine. The color pink is such an antiquated way to symbolize women and femininity in the 21st century. If the pink ribbon folks fail to realize that a concept of pink femininity itself has transformed and become more and more obsolete in the modern world, how are we supposed to relate to it as a symbol? At the party, I just ignored the pink and focused on having fun.

I would love cancer people, all cancer people, to work on ideas of preserving the self (not the woman or man) that we were before we were sick and who we are in the midst and wake of our illness. How do we continue to feel like ourselves, our unique selves, during and after our treatments -- not solely the aspects that have to do with our sex? When you hear the words "you have cancer," it puts you in a club you never wanted to join, as my survivor friend told me the other day. I think everyone with cancer grapples with their diagnosis and bodily tumult -- not women above men or those with X cancer above those with Y cancer. It is a universal and difficult struggle.

I went to a "cancer party" and had a great time, even though it was themed with pink. I felt joy and gratitude, catharsis and solidarity. I realized there is a need to party, but I also stand behind my original assertion that we must continue a new dialogue on how to best represent cancer for those of us affected by it, those touched by it and those that can be spared from it. We need education, but I do admit that we also need celebration.