A guest post from Katie Ford Hall, of Uneasy Pink
We’re well into Pink October, 2010, but this year I sense a shift in awareness about awareness. The media has criticized pinkwashing and silly viral memes trivializing cancer with sexual innuendo. Tough questions are being asked, like why so little progress is being made to reduce mortalities despite all of this awareness?
The usual counterpoint is that while awareness campaigns might be for lightweights, they’re harmless. Right?
No, not so much.
The worst day of my life, no hyperbole, was July 14, 2008. While walking out the door to take my kids to summer camp, I received a phone call with biopsy results.
A month before, I had my second annual mammogram at a well-known urban cancer center. Like you and everyone else, I was aware of breast cancer. Since neither of my parents nor their eight collective siblings had it, I wasn’t worried. Still, I performed self exams, had annual check-ups with my gynecologist and got my baseline mammogram at age 40. I’d never been seriously ill or hospitalized; I exercise and eat pretty well.
Bottom line: I am a well-educated middle class suburban mother. I go to my kids’ soccer games, track meets, school plays and church on Sundays; help with homework, bandage boo-boos and generally play by the rules.
But in June, doctors saw an odd lymph node in my armpit during my standard mammogram. At age 41 I didn’t realize that I already had the two biggest risk factors: being female and getting older.
After that phone call, my summer turned frantic. I had mammograms, ultrasounds, biopsies, MRIs, bone scans and CAT scans. One doctor led me to believe I might have lung cancer and another recommended a radical operation. I switched my entire medical team. Twice. On August 28th I finally learned the answer. I had a 1.7 cm tumor of invasive breast cancer in that suspicious lymph node and an 8 cm tumor in my right breast.
How is it possible that all of the exams, mammograms and professionals missed it? Early on I’d been told my breasts were lumpy, like most premenopausal women. Everything felt and imaged was assumed benign until the cancer spread to my lymphatic system and became life threatening.
Two years later, I’ve been through chemotherapy, targeted therapy, two surgeries and radiation. I’m beyond grateful to be here, but forever scarred and uneasy. It’s disturbing that a tumor as large as mine, too big to even operate on before chemotherapy intervention, evaded detection for so long. It’s disturbing to consider how easily this savvy and empowered woman was lulled into a false sense of security by trite awareness messages. October after October, the pink ribbons went up and my breast cancer progressed unnoticed.
It’s past time to give up the feel-good message of October and take a hard look at breast cancer. In 1991, 27 per 100,000 women died of breast cancer. Sixteen Breast Cancer Awareness months later, 24 women per 100,000 died. Mortality rates for African Americans have actually increased over the same period.
Billions of dollars have been raised under the breast cancer umbrella, but we still don’t have good detection methods for women under age 50. Little progress has been made in reducing breast cancer fatalities. Outcome disparities break down along the lines of ethnicity, class and access to health care. We don’t have a cure. We don’t know the cause.
But every October, we have pink ribbons festooning every aisle in the grocery store from toilet paper and cat litter to chips and alcohol. How can that be harmless?