It’s October, and pink is everywhere. The month that was once dominated by all things orange and pumpkin is now donning a new hue. The ubiquitous pink ribbon adorns clothes, food and all kinds of merchandise, often with the promise of donating a portion of the profit to breast cancer research. The pink ribbon campaign serves multiple purposes, not only to honor those who have lost their lives to the disease, but also as a show of solidarity with those currently fighting it. And there is an element of prevention and education, promoting early detection through mammograms and monthly self-exams.
I don’t know why breast cancer seems to get more attention than other diseases. There are so many tragic illnesses that afflict friends and family, and all are deserving of our efforts to cure them: Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and cancers of all types. But there is something about the pink ribbon campaign that has made it so successful.
It could be simply that it was one of the first to benefit from corporate support and marketing. Maybe it is just that women have a talent for banding together into networks of support. I suspect, though, that part of it is that breast cancer often strikes the most cherished members of our families: the mothers. Moms are the heart of the home and the glue that holds families together. And I cannot think of anything more heartbreaking than a child whose mom has died.
My sister Debbie battled breast cancer for five years before she died at the age of 42. Her three daughters were 7, 11 and 18. For me the pink ribbon logo is more than just a reminder of another woman taken much too young. It signifies the strength she showed in those five years. Our society tends to portray women as the more delicate gender. But when faced with a fight for their lives, women can be fiercely strong.
We often hear about someone who fought a courageous battle with cancer, but what does that really mean? The physical and emotional challenges of being a mother with cancer are daunting. Debbie tried to keep life as happy and normal for her kids as possible, while she dealt with her illness. She underwent rounds of chemotherapy and radiation that had horrific side effects. When she was too ill to be her usual supermom self, she had to quit her job and allow others to help with her girls. She had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.
After a couple of years, the cancer spread to her brain. Complications from surgery to remove the tumor in her brain almost killed her. She remained in the hospital for weeks, working hard with grueling physical therapy. She had to re-train her limbs, to find her balance and walk. She even had to re-learn how to swallow, and she would describe her cravings for pizza as she ‘ate’ a nutrition drink through a feeding tube.
Debbie showed as much toughness and resiliency as any battle-tried soldier, rarely complaining and always nurturing her family. I suspect most women diagnosed with breast cancer have demonstrated similar courage and fortitude, so I will choose to honor them this month, rather than just be sad.
There is nothing about breast cancer that makes it the “better” cause, therefore deserving of a month all to itself. But I do fervently hope that the money raised by the pink ribbon campaign and all the races and walks for a cure will soon produce an end to cancer. In the meantime, I’ll think pink and salute all the women affected by this disease. They are heroes in my eyes.