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My Bra? Color Me Furious

5 years ago
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The bra-color meme that's sweeping Facebook and allegedly raising awareness of breast cancer got a nice one-two punch from my colleague Frances Tobin.

Allow me to pile on.

Not for myself, but for friends I've watched face this beast. Many of them aren't wearing bras of any color because their breasts are long gone. Instead they might be wearing a lymphedema sleeve on their arms, in some cases for the rest of their lives.

As a member of the all-too-exclusive club of long-term ovarian cancer survivors, let me first say I used to resent the enormous amount of attention breast cancer got over other cancers. Breast Cancer Awareness Month (also known as "pink nausea" by certain folks) seemed to begin in late July and end in late November, totally eclipsing the far more lethal (per capita) cancers of ovarian and pancreatic.

Where's all the teal in September? I realize fountains are not so good for awareness, since they're always teal. But where are the endless rows of candy bars and other products sporting teal?

Where's all the purple in November? If you're a playwright and you want your main character to die, you choose ovarian if it's a woman and pancreatic if it's a guy. So where's the love for pancreatic cancer patients?

Cancer envy – wishing you could trade in your bad-stat cancer for a more benign variety – is known only to those with personal experience with this dreadful disease.

Like it was yesterday, I remember lunch with my friend Sherri. One year after my diagnosis with ovarian cancer, she'd been diagnosed with breast cancer. She gazed out the window and said, "This is going to kill me."

"How can you say that," I replied. "I'd give anything to trade my statistics for yours."

"Don't ask me how I know," she said. "I just know."

Sherri was earlier stage than me. She was younger than me. I thought about that when, six years later, I attended her funeral.

For a while I went to a support group for cancer survivors of all types. That was my light-bulb moment. The breast cancer patients in that group began detailing the experiences – waking up from surgery, the day after surgery, going home with drainage tubes attached to their armpits.

"Tubes?" I shuddered. "I guess every kind of cancer is its own version of hell."


In spring of 2008, another friend was diagnosed with breast cancer. If only I had a dollar for every time I said: My tumor was 11 centimeters. When was the last time you heard of an 11-centimeter breast tumor?

"No, Donna, it's not early stage," my friend said. "The tumor is nine centimeters." My friend had lobular breast cancer, which can grow into the chest instead of outward.

A few months later she got a bonus -- a second primary of lung cancer, the kind nonsmokers get. She's had more surgery in 18 months than I've had in my whole life.

My friend is ten years younger than me. Her husband is a doctor. She's always been trim and fit, and she has not a mean bone in her body.

Color me educated.

But don't color me pink. Or teal. I want a new color. I want a rainbow. We use the word "cancer" for what is probably a thousand different diseases. The segregation and disparity in funding between types of cancer is absurd. Name any cell in your body, and you've just named a chance for mutation and cancer – at any time, for any person.

Even so, I suspect women are especially vulnerable. Their bodies are designed to grow things. Like babies. And, it turns out, cancer, even if they don't smoke, and they eat healthy, and breast-feed their children. While men can get male-specific cancers, women's cancers seem to be more adept at hiding til it's too late.

Which brings us back to bra colors. Yes, awareness is good – unless people think awareness is as good as action. Think before you pink, says Breast Cancer Action.

Last night on the Facebook wall of Matthew Zachary, founder of I'm Too Young for This (aka Stupid Cancer), the bra-color meme was topic one for the evening. "Awareness," Matthew wrote, "is the same as rhetoric. Like propaganda without the marketing. It's air. I welcome any cultural anthropologist to demonstrate successful awareness without action."

Years ago I attended a lunch gathering of cancer survivors and medical professionals. The event was supposed to end with some kind of hilarious musical spoof on the subject of "boobs," written by a surgeon. At the last moment, the song got spiked. Through the grapevine I heard that a patient facing mastectomy found the subject not one bit funny.

After walking a mile in the shoes of my friends, I have to say I agree. I would find no comfort in Facebook games about colored lingerie that my new body no longer needed, or tight tee-shirts with cute slogans about saving "second base" or the "ta-tas."

Or any other campaign that emphasized the womanliness, the beauty, the importance of breasts. Never mind the breasts. Save the women.
Filed Under: Woman Up
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