Pinktober, Representation, and Individuality

Well, it’s October. Has been for awhile. And apparently there are a whole lot of things that we either celebrate, honor, or try to build awareness for during October. Some of them get a lot more coverage than others; for example, until I started putting this video together, I was not aware that October was Squirrel Awareness Month, or even that there was a Squirrel Awareness Month, actually, much less that it’s different from Squirrel Appreciation DAY, which is in January. 

Isn’t it amazing what you can learn from the internet?

Anyway. Within the breast cancer community, this time of year is often referred to as “Pinktober.” Breast cancer awareness gets a lot of press, and with good reason. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2021, over three hundred thousand women will be diagnosed with breast cancer nationwide. Diagnosis rates have been increasing steadily, but this is most probably due to increased awareness and diagnostic capability; mortality rates, particularly among women over fifty, have been declining. 

In fact, there were fewer than 180,000 new cases of breast cancer in women in 1998, the year that I was first diagnosed. Yep! I’m a statistic. 

I noticed that I would have a dark-brown stain on my T-shirt or pajama top when I woke up. At first I put this down to my own carelessness; I was in college and drank a lot of caffeinated beverages – tea, coffee, Coke. But one night I was so zonked that I just lay down in my clothes, and when I woke up the next morning, the stain was inside my sports bra. 

So, at that point, I was pretty freaked out. After an awkward exam by the Lady Doctor at the campus health clinic, I got to have an awkward conversation with my parents, followed by an awkward appointment at the start of Christmas break with the general practitioner who had been diagnosing my bronchitis and such since forever. He agreed with pretty much everybody that this was weird. But he didn’t have any more answers, and he suggested a biopsy. 

I remember telling him that I wanted to speak with my mom privately. When he’d left the room, I turned to her and asked her if our insurance would cover that. And I remember that, in a very loving and supportive way, she let me have it. I’ll save the rest of that story for another video, because the … situation … of health insurance in America really deserves at least one full video. But my mother very, very clearly impressed upon me the importance of taking care of your health.

So a few days later, I had my biopsy. And three days before Christmas, I got a phone call from my doctor. I remember the phrase, “this isn’t the news we were hoping for.” I don’t want to make it sound like everything else was a blur; I just forget things. A lot. But that stands out. I think we got contact information for various specialists, because we talked to quite a few over the next couple of weeks. Almost everyone suggested either a lumpectomy or a simple mastectomy. I wasn’t sure how I felt until one of the doctors pointed out that I had a very early stage, and another option would be to not have surgery at all, and just monitor the situation. And my gut reaction was “Are you kidding? I have CANCER!” That made me realize that ultimately, I’d feel better with a more aggressive treatment.

Also, my boobs were already small. At least with the mastectomy, I could get reconstruction instead of being even smaller on the one side!

The one other part that I remember is going back to school for the process of withdrawing for the spring semester. I was able to get my classes and scholarships bumped back without any problem, but when I tried to get my housing deposit back, I was told it was non-refundable. And I remember protesting, “I’m not irresponsible! I can’t help it! I have cancer!” and bursting into tears. 

And I have no idea who that poor work-study student was; I owe him such an apology because it wasn’t his fault either. To his credit, he got out of the way quickly and brought back some kind of supervisor and it all got worked out. But I will never forget the immediate panic I saw on his face, that sort of “oh crap, oh crap, oh crap, I don’t know what to do!” 

I’m very touchy about money.

My surgery went smoothly. They did the reconstruction at the same time. I went back to college in the fall and finished out my degree in English Education. Life progressed fairly normally; in addition to getting annual checkups with a doctor and a dentist, I also went to see an oncologist. At first it was every six months, then every year.

And then I found a lump. 

It was not quite twelve years after my first diagnosis. The lump was hard, but not painful or even sensitive. It was like my rib had grown a little bean. The initial process was similar: this probably isn’t anything serious (this time, the thought was that it was scar tissue at the edge of the implant) but let’s have a biopsy and check. And then, again, the news that we didn’t want. 

I was teaching by this time, but I was diagnosed in June, and I was able to have my surgery either at the end of June or in July, so I didn’t miss any school. But since the cancer was a little more advanced – invasive, but clear lymph nodes – after I recovered fully, I went through chemotherapy, which was one treatment every few weeks through the end of the year, and then radiation, which I think was every few days after school for a month. And then I had to recover from that before reconstruction, which was the following summer, but there were complications, so the summer after that they did a different procedure, which was effective. 

It’s now been more than ten years since my second diagnosis. My hair has grown back; that happens when you don’t bother to get it cut. And I have officially been released from check-ups with my oncologist. We both expressed the hope that if we saw each other again, it would be in the grocery store, and not in any sort of professional capacity. We might have shared a hug, but (a) COVID, and (b) neither of us is all that huggy.

The thing is, even during Pinktober, I don’t share my story all that much. Cancer is a really serious disease, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have caught my case early and to have had treatment go smoothly. And that’s not everyone’s experience; it’s probably not even most people’s experience. I don’t want to say anything that would cause someone to take it more lightly. At the same time, I know that it can be overwhelming, not only for patients, but for those close to them as well. So I don’t want to not talk about my experience.

This is one of the challenges of being part of a group. There are things we tend to have in common, even though on the whole, we’re more unique and different than we are alike. And sometimes, when most of the group shares a particular feature or experience, and you don’t, it can make you question the validity of your membership, your belonging in that group.

I often feel like I don’t really “belong” as a … cancer survivor. I don’t even like that term, because it implies that I went through something that threatened my survival, and my cancer really didn’t do that. 

TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” by Chimamanda Adichie

Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TED talk, titled “The Danger of a Single Story,” explores this from the perspective of an audience – specifically, in her opening anecdote, her own experience as a young reader and writer. When we have one particular description of something, and it’s reinforced again and again, that becomes the “single story” that we have. It becomes definitive. “African” becomes synonymous with “primitive” and “impoverished.” “Cancer” becomes synonymous with degenerative frailty and impossible odds; “femininity” with having boobs. I love this shirt, but it’s not coincidental that “wild about a” is in smaller type and is up here, and “cure” is in BIG letters, right across HERE.

I am definitely “Wild about a Cure,” but I find the text placement amusing!

This is why representation is important, and why it’s important for representation to avoid being repetitive. That’s how you wind up with stereotypes. That tension between individuality and community is all around us; if identification with a group means something, then it’s reasonable to explore why. What shared traits or experiences are significant, and why do they matter to the members of that group?

But it’s also vital to remember that each person within a group is also a unique individual. Not everyone will have the same traits or experiences, or the same opinions about them even if they do. There are going to be outliers in any element we choose. Definitions are tricky that way. My experiences and opinions as a cancer patient, or as a teacher, or as a woman, or as a white person, or an American, or any number of other groups that I fit in, should not necessarily be taken as representative for other members of those groups. I have a responsibility to avoid presenting them that way. And I also have a responsibility to avoid taking others’ statements as being representative of their groups, unless they have been given that role by that group. 

So I would encourage you to think about your own identity in this way. How do you define yourself, and what makes those elements important enough to be definitive? Who does that connect you to? What do you share? Why does that matter? 

And, since it IS Pinktober, I would also encourage you to talk to others in your family about your health history. If you’re over forty, talk to your doctor about breast cancer and when you should have a mammogram. You don’t have to be female to develop breast cancer, although it’s significantly more common in women. And in general, talk to your doctor about changes, especially changes that are sudden or unexpected. Familiarize yourself with your body, and what’s normal for you. Because regardless of what groups you’re in, ultimately, you are an individual. You are unique. And that is so important.

You can watch a video version of this post on my YouTube channel.

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