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Cancer Is Always A Monster

Nurse Assisting Patient Undergoing Mammogram
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Don’t be fooled by the pretty pink everything coming to a store near everywhere this month. Cancer is not pretty. It’s not pink. It’s not cute, fun, or whimsical, no matter how many men you might see running around in pink tutus for the cause.

Cancer is brutal. It’s jagged bone, blood and tears. It’s fatigue and exhaustion, hope and terror, despair and rage. It doesn’t matter how quickly you catch it or how advanced it is when you get the diagnosis; the immediate impact is the same. Hearing your doctor say the words melts reality away and leaves you stranded and alone – no matter how many people might be beside you. Survival rates are just numbers, even when they’re good. Cancer is dread. It’s the creeping fear catching you by the neck and squeezing until you break.

Because cancer is always a monster.

Not that you’d know it from most of the pink, frilly, fun Breast Cancer Awareness campaigns going on this month. Don’t get me wrong, though. Breast Cancer Awareness Month has done a lot of good for a lot of people. Women are more likely to get mammograms early now, and catching any form of cancer sooner rather than later is always better. I love Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I just don’t like all the tropes that seem to come with it.

Everywhere you turn, some retailer is selling pink versions of this widget or that thingamajig, all while claiming that some portion of their earnings will go toward raising breast cancer awareness. And, people basically being decent, would always prefer to spend their money on the pink can of soup than the regular one, if some amount of what they’re spending will go toward helping someone else.

Which is how they get you.

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MillefloreImages

It’s called “pinkwashing”, and few things make breast cancer survivors more furious. Cosmetics companies always bring out new pink products for Breast Cancer Awareness Month without ever even acknowledging any of the research that has shown that many of the products they sell likely contain the very same carcinogens that have been linked to breast cancer, and are laced with everything from hormone disrupters to reproductive toxins and neurotoxic compounds. But hey, they have a really cute pink nail polish this year, and a few pennies of every sale will go toward raising awareness for a disease the product itself is likely causing, so I guess it all balances out.

That’s just how money works. Corporations have figured out that they can sell more things in October if they give them a quick slap of pink paint, and any money they lose in donations, they’ll make up for in increased volume. Which is fine. Some money for research is better than no money for research.

Still, there’s a problem with making everything so upbeat and “fun” during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Ask anyone who has been through cancer treatment how fun it was for them. Ask them how cute their IV drip of chemo was. How whimsical their radiation treatments were. Ask them how much they love boobs.

Especially if they don’t have them anymore.

Because that’s the problem with pinkwashing: it paints a very different picture of cancer than the harsh, heart-breaking reality of the disease. Lighthearted campaigns like “I Heart Boobs” are nothing but a painful reminder and a slap in the face to every woman who has undergone a mastectomy due to this fun, cute little disease that is neither cute, nor fun.

Look, I get it. Raising cancer awareness is important. People need to get screened. They need to get checked. They need to keep on top of it, especially if cancer runs in their family, like it does in mine.

My mom didn’t have breast cancer, but she was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer in the late ‘90s, when she wasn’t much older than I am today. My sister and I were both away at college when it happened, although I ended up moving back home that summer. The days and nights were long and hard as I watched my mom get weaker and sicker, and slip further and further into hopelessness. The worst part was the fear behind her eyes, and how it grew bigger after every round of chemo.

She got through it, but like any cancer survivor will tell you, fighting the monster leaves battle scars. Her health was never the same after chemo. She ended up on countless medications for this ailment or that condition, with each treatment requiring more medication to counteract the side effects of another medication. She was never the same, and it eventually all caught up to her.

She passed away a few months ago, not from the cancer coming back – which was a perpetual fear she carried with her from the first day of her diagnosis through the rest of her life – but from the cascading effect of her deteriorating health that all started decades ago, when she first heard those three terrifying words.

You. Have. Cancer.

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AntonioGuillem

So don’t fall for pinkwashing. Cancer is always a monster. It strikes the young and old alike, and doesn’t care one bit about how much money you have in the bank or what kind of car your drive, how much you studied in school or that you have children who depend on you. It strikes without mercy and without feeling. I know beautiful, vibrant young women who’ve been attacked by it – and survived. But they’ll carry the wounds it left behind forever. Which makes them tougher and braver than I’ll ever be.

They slew the monster, but it’s always there, somewhere in the dark caverns of their minds. Lurking. Waiting. Always waiting.

A good friend of mine died far too young many years ago, after we all thought he won his battle with brain cancer. But the monster was still there, in the shadows. Waiting to strike with a newfound fury that no amount of treatment could stop. I miss him.

A few years ago, the world lost a very bright light in the form of a wonderfully kind and quirky and talent writer I was lucky enough to know. He wrote honestly and openly about his fight with the monster, and even wrote a terrific book about the emotional experience of cancer that’s a beautiful gut punch to the soul. I miss him, too.

Survivors live with the lingering scars and wounds from their battles, and they go on. Always afraid of it returning, they find the strength and go on, all while watching people smile and make jokes and buy clever pink product tie-ins every October that almost seem to celebrate the single most devastating event in their lives. When guys walk around with an “I Heart Boobs” bracelet on their wrists or wearing a “Save The Boobies” t-shirt on their backs, these women can’t help but think about how no one saved their “boobs”. Because no one could save them. Because that’s how cancer works. Because cancer is always a monster.

One of the amazing women I know who survived breast cancer phrased it far better than I ever could:

Forget the boobs! Save the woman that they were trying to kill. The day I was diagnosed, I wanted to cut them off myself with a butcher knife. I just wanted to see my babies grow up. I didn’t care about the boobs.

If you want to help cancer patients, survivors, or their families, then skip the pink products and national fundraisers. Instead, find a local charity that gives help directly to the people who need it. Here in Lake Charles, we have the wonderful Ethel Precht Foundation, which takes in charitable donations and then actually provides help directly to local people in Cameron and Calcasieu Parish. It’s a beautiful thing and a wonderful organization.

Cancer might be a monster, but even the scariest nightmares can be conquered with enough light and hope and strength. You can be that for someone. There’s room for beauty when fighting the beast, and we need it – but it will never come from a pink tube of toothpaste or a bucket of chicken with a ribbon on it. Beauty comes from the strength found in the brave souls of those fighting the monster, and from those who’ve already slain it. And it comes from the endless sea of lost smiles we’ll never see again on all the faces of all the people we can only remember.

Cancer is always a monster.

Be a warrior.

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nemke

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