You can tell it’s October, and it’s certainly not because of fall-like temperatures in Los Angeles, or even because pumpkin-flavoring has temporarily become a daily dietary supplement. We’re used to all that. What seems more prevalent than before are omnipresent spikes in use of the color pink, particularly as a fashion accessory, and a definite uptick in non-pejorative use of the word “ta-tas” in everyday parlance. October, of course, is breast cancer awareness month.
I encountered the most recent iteration of raising awareness for breast cancer at a local gas station. An amiable and excited young man showed me his wondrous cleaning product for my windshield, tires, and kitchen countertops! And guess what? It was in pink bottles, and a portion of the cost was being donated to breast cancer. Another ad I saw placed a camera in a women’s breasts to record how many people stared at her chest, with the take home message of checking your “ta-tas” for breast cancer.
Raising awareness about a health issue seems like a great thing, and in many ways, it is. I am all for women performing self-exams, taking charge of their health, and feeling empowered. At the same time, I am thinking about men with breast cancer, and the conversations I have had with women who have directly experienced cancer in the support group I facilitate. What might it feel like if your unique, intimate, personal breast cancer experience was fit into a stereotype broadcast around the country for a month? What might it feel like to have constant explicit reminders of your cancer journey for an entire month, practically everywhere you turn? For many women who have directly experienced breast cancer, October is a month in which you must feel like hiding, and I don’t blame you. A very sensitive part of your life is being reduced to a clever ad, or discussed in a nonchalant, or even brazenly funny manner. You may feel bombarded by the seemingly innocuous pink jerseys and pink eye black on NFL players, pink ribbons at the grocery store, or friends and loved ones who suddenly check in with you more about how you are doing with your cancer. This takes a toll on a woman psychologically, not to mention that men also get breast cancer, and this awareness campaign must feel particularly emasculating for them. Having a difficult experience constantly reflected back at you in such explicit fashion can contribute to feelings of isolation, frustration, anger, resentment, deflation, guilt, and shame.
I am not arguing for getting rid of breast cancer awareness month, but I do wonder if it could be “celebrated” in a more sensitive way, one that takes into greater account the real experiences of those who have directly experienced the disease.
I am advocating, and strongly encouraging, those who have directly experienced breast cancer to keep in mind the impact that all this heightened, daily, and in some sense trivialized, breast cancer focus can have on your psychological and emotional health. Be kind to yourself if you are feeling particularly fatigued, frustrated, irritable, or lonely. Ask yourself what you need in this moment, and what you can do to take care of yourself. Mentally prepare as you go out into the world or turn on the TV, and surf the web. You may be about to get a surprise whack from the breast cancer PR campaign. It might be best to limit your contact with such sources if possible. Let others know if this is proving to be a difficult month for you, and make self-care a priority. Set appropriate boundaries with people if you do not feel like discussing what you are feeling. Make sure you are aware of how you are feeling, so that your emotions do not seep out inadvertently, say, by snapping at another person in the carpool lane who’s displaying the pink trappings of the month. Review how you want to handle situations with others who may not approach you in the most sensitive manner. Find supporters who have gone through a similar experience and connect with them in an in-person group and/or online. It should be helpful for you to reflect on your own breast cancer journey and attempt to ascribe proper meaning to it, even if that meaning is rooted in a disquieting lack of completeness.
Remember that an essential element of breast cancer awareness month is empowerment. Many individuals who are diagnosed with breast cancer likely felt empowered about their health before they were diagnosed, and now have endured a tremendous blow to such feelings. A frequent line of thinking is: “What good did that health-conscious empowerment do for me? I got cancer!” And it is okay to feel that way. Being slapped in the face with mortality and uncertainty is one of the most scary and challenging existential experiences we endure as humans. If we are able to recognize, tolerate, and perhaps begin to accept how fragile our existence truly is, we may find greater joy in those moments that seem so everyday, because they are in many ways the most precious of all and are why we work so hard at feeling empowered in the first place.
Most importantly, honor your individual experience in whatever way feels best for you. Perhaps that means not reflecting on your breast cancer at all, and instead devoting increased time and energy throughout the month to a cause that has special meaning to those you love. Life, with or without breast cancer, has no single path to happiness and fulfillment. But recognizing how best to pursue authentic mental wellness during each of life’s seasons is an important part of the journey.