Pink: The color of opportunity

I told myself I would remove the pink silicone bracelet when my sister was cured.
Then she died two months ago and I didn’t know what to do.
I couldn’t take it off.
I couldn’t bear the sight of it.
I nearly kicked down the display of pink I saw in the grocery store only a week after her death, more than a month before the kickoff of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I wanted it gone. Pink made me angry.
A symbol of false hope.
A cash-cow for certain companies that dupe buyers into believing they are donating to the cause.
A month when simply wearing a color makes people feel like they’ve done something when they’ve done nothing at all.
All the pink in the world couldn’t save my sister.
Pink was a constant reminder of what I’d lost, what her children and husband had lost, what my siblings and her friends had lost, and it was unbearable.
Until last week.
I was at the grocery store again, the same grocery store with the premature display. The clerk was ringing up my groceries when she asked me about the bracelet. I told her about my sister, Kathy Riley. She offered condolences.
“That’s why,” she said, “I never skip a mammogram.”
For a moment, I was furious. How dare she assume my sister didn’t heed the same advice? Our mother is a survivor. Our grandmother died of breast cancer. We were vigilant, my three sisters and I. My sister’s breast cancer was detected a month after her mammogram. Her then 2-year-old son leaned against her breast and it hurt. She checked and felt a lump.
Then, through my anger, I glimpsed opportunity.
I told her my sister’s story and stressed the importance of monthly self-checks. I explained that mammograms can miss cancer in people with dense tissue and that further, more sensitive tests, can sometimes be necessary.
She expressed surprise that anyone could be diagnosed so soon after a mammogram and admitted she never did self-checks. She would from then on, she promised, and suddenly, pink didn’t make me so angry anymore.
I am still bothered by the commercialization of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and by those people who seem to revel in the color itself rather than in the meaning behind it. But I am no longer torn when I look at my bracelet.
Pink started that conversation, and who knows? Maybe the insight she gained through our talk will someday save a life. Maybe she’ll find a lump early enough for a cure, or maybe she’ll tell a friend who will tell a friend, and the conversation will keep going, moving others to do self-checks regularly.
So that’s what I ask this month of anyone who reads this.
Don’t just wear pink.
Wear it with a purpose.
Wear it as a reminder, as motivation to educate, as a conversation starter. Buy it from companies that donate to research, education or support. Wear while you send a note to someone who is battling the disease or make a meal for a cancer patient or participate in a fundraiser.
It doesn’t have to be bold and brilliant.
It can be small and subtle.
Sometimes, it’s the little things that catch people’s attention.
Little things like the bracelet on my wrist.

Earn the Pink: A Breast Cancer Awareness Month Challenge

I find myself dreading October 1, the day the world turns pink.

The month-long campaign for breast cancer research and education is an astounding success in terms of raising awareness and money. That I will admit. But it has become an event. A celebration. Pink, pink pink.
Everywhere I look, I see pink.
It’s hard to witness when my sister is on her third battle with breast cancer, which has now invaded most every part of body. Cancer will be her constant companion. She will spend the rest of her life beating it back whenever it threatens to establish primary residency.
I cringe at the constant reminders.
I wish I could turn off the lights for just one month so I wouldn’t have to see it.
 The pink.
But I can’t do that. I have to experience this month, regardless.
So I started thinking about what I can do to ease the stress, what all of us can do.
How about this?
Instead of posting ribbons to our Facebook profiles, crying over survivor stories and wearing pink t-shirts, sneakers and hats, why don’t we do something about it? Do something to help save ourselves, our relatives and our friends?
Why don’t we each make a positive change and become an example?
It doesn’t have to be a huge change. It can be as small as doing a few crunches in the morning to tighten those abs, or switching out a morning bagel for a bowl of oatmeal, or promising to start each day with one positive thought.
It’s that easy.
Those are the little things that can make a big difference. They can make us healthier – less likely to become victims, and stronger in battle should it break through our defenses. These are changes we can talk about with others, encouraging them to follow our leads.
Post it on Facebook, chat about it in the office, tweet it.
We don’t know what caused my sister’s cancer.
She’s always taken good care of herself. I suspect environment played a role. She lives in Southern Jersey in an area where cancer rates are unusually high. But even as she holds her head to stop the pounding, or clenches her stomach to ease the nausea, she’s trying harder. She’s working to improve her way of living – her diet, her attitude and her fitness.
She is fighting with everything she can.
So go ahead and cheer her on with pink flags, pom-poms and ribbons.
We all want to know someone is thinking of us, and I’m certain that helps.
But jump in and fight, too. Prepare for battle and arm yourselves well. Don’t let breast cancer have it easy. Wear the pink glow that comes with a brisk walk, or after a good night’s sleep or when you look in the mirror and tell yourself life is good.
Make pink the color of your battle uniform, not just your décor.

Make-up-free selfies: Why breast cancer awareness undermines the movement

My sister is a recent survivor of stage-four breast cancer, her second battle with the disease in eight years. During her chemo treatments — after she’d traded her hair for scarves — she experienced an awesome show of support from the staff at the elementary school where she works.
They all wore scarves or hats in her honor.
She was overwhelmed.
With those scarves and hats, her coworkers showed they were thinking of her, that they understood every day she came to work was a struggle and every day she missed work was a disappointment. The hats and scarves were symbolic of the strength, love, prayers and positive energy they offered.
Now imagine that, instead, they all showed up without make-up.
Let’s face it.
There is a reason we feel both brave and vulnerable posting make-up-free selfies. Like it or not, we judge books by their covers, especially female books. It would be awesome if the make-up-free movement helped women become comfortable with our natural selves (I know I’m not.), and if society would become more appreciative.
But here’s the trouble.
These particular selfies are not posted in an effort to affect change. Rather they are intended as a show of support for those less fortunate than us in terms of their health. We wear no make-up to bring ourselves “down” to their level, the level of people who are suffering and fighting.
We, as a society, do not accept the “natural look” as inherently beautiful. We clearly do not accept it ourselves as evidenced by the fact that we consider posting such a selfie a “brave” act — a challenge we present to others.
It’s done with a gulp and a “Here it goes!”
The intent is, no doubt, honorable.
But here’s the message we unconsciously send to those battling breast cancer: “You look like crap, so I’m going to make myself look like crap to make you feel better. See how brave I am? I am even willing to look like you.”
I have not quizzed my sister about her feelings on this topic, but I’m pretty sure she would have been overwhelmed in an entirely different way had her female coworkers honored her by wearing no make-up. And if she cried that day, I’m fairly certain hers would be tears of a different kind.
I’m not opposed to make-up-free selfies in general.
Not at all.
In fact, I have nothing but praise for author Laura Lippman who started the movement after an actress was heavily criticized during the Oscars for looking like herself. Laura posted a natural selfie and encouraged other authors to follow suit in an effort to take down some socially created barriers. Built self-confidence. Help females authors support each other.
It worked for me.
With my novels current under submission to publishers, I’ll admit that the potential for post-publication photographic attention makes me nervous. I can’t help comparing myself to photos of those always-gorgeous looking authors who seem to confident, so put together.
Then I saw this slew of selfies.
I learned that many of those women looked different without make-up, but not in a negative way. The lack of make-up drew my eyes to their smiles, something I had never put much emphasis on previously. They made me smile inside.They made me realize these other authors are just as real as I am.
And that was an awesome feeling.
They were brave to post those selfies, but brave for a different cause.
They were brave in an effort to create change.
While I am absolutely certain the intentions of those who post make-up-free self portraits are honorable and that the posts show an admirable level of braveness and humility, breast cancer awareness or support is just not the right reason.
Do it for yourself.
Do it because it feels good to be free.
Do it to free woman like me who have not yet found the courage.
Do it because you believe it shouldn’t require bravery and because you want that to change.

A new friend. a new inspiration: fighting inflammatory breast cancer

I had dinner last night with a woman who, according to all the statistics, should have been getting her meal through an IV at a Hospice center.
Instead, she was scooping up cheese and beef with tortilla chips from a platter shared with a friend at Cheeseburger in Paradise.
Ashley has inflammatory breast cancer, the deadliest of breast cancers and among the most deadly of all cancers.
She was diagnosed in May and, by then, it was already in her lungs, bones and liver.
She is married and has two children, a 3-year-old and a 7-year-old.
About the same time she was diagnosed, I’d had a scare.
A red circle, following the pattern of my veins on my breast, appeared out of nowhere.
My OB said that if it progressed any further at all, even the tiniest bit, he was sending me to an oncologist because it wasn’t an infection and the only explanation he could find was inflammatory breast cancer.
The redness diminished with the help of Motrin and disappeared, thank God.
But in that short time, I’d done enough research to be scared when I met Ashely last night.
No.
Terrified.
I’d learned that IBC generally appears as discoloration (red, pink, orange or general darkness) or irritation on the skin of the breast; spots that are warm top the touch; thickness of breast skin with an orange-peel-like texture; swelling of one breast; or nipple retraction. Sometimes, it’s painful, but not always.
Most women simply figure it will go away.
By the time they see a doctor, it’s too late.
“Stage doesn’t matter with inflammatory breast cancer,” Ashely said.
And it’s true.
The disease spreads like wildfire. By the time symptoms appear, the cancer has spread so far that chances of survival are slim. About 40 percent of women with IBC survive five years, according to The American Cancer Society. That compares with 87 percent for all breast cancers combined.
Yet there she was.
Ashley.
Scooping cheese and beef with tortilla chips.
Laughing with friends, new and old.
Saved, so far, by research and awareness.
Ashely just finished round five of chemo. She has been drained of estrogen because this type of cancer feeds on it. She takes a drug that rebuilds her bone tissues as chemo destroys it. She will have her uterus and ovaries removed in a few weeks as a preventative measure.
A recent scan showed no discernible spots in her lungs. The masses in her liver and breasts had shrunk. They couldn’t see the bone tissue because of the drug, but the doctors believe chemo is working on that too.
She’s had a new scan on Wednesday and was still waiting for those results.
Ashley is living, and she is improving.
Against the odds.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Ashely and another friend, my neighbor Kristy, persuaded me to demand an MRI instead of a mammogram this next time around because of my extensive family history of breast cancer (My grandmother died of it and my mother and sister are survivors) and because of the fact that, so far, I’ve had two scares.
After meeting Ashley, I’ve decided I will do that.
Like I said, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
But why wait.
Even just a few days.
I am going to take charge.
Now.
How about you?