What started with simple ribbons has evolved into a veritable industry of pink, everything from apparel to spatulas to vacuum cleaners. It's as if the entire nation were enveloped in a Christo exhibition, especially in Dallas, the home of the Susan G. Komen Foundation and epicenter of Pink Mania. A person can't possibly be unaware that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Every month used to be awareness month for me. I am a fourth-generation breast cancer candidate. When my mother, a two-time survivor, was first diagnosed with an aggressive pre-menopausal strain, her doctor recommended that I, 21 at the time, undergo a prophylactic mastectomy. I was horrified. "Geez, Mom, if you had brain cancer would he tell me to have a lobotomy?"
I didn't choose that drastic route back then, but I did begin a booby dance: a regimen of annual mammograms and ultrasounds. When MRIs became available, they too were added to the guest list. If anything suspicious was detected, I would undergo a biopsy then step up the dance schedule to quarterly. I tell my male friends to imagine slapping a testicle on a glass plate and then watching as a second plate was lowered to squash that jewel in a vise. Then repeat. I don't need to repeat their unanimous reaction.
Then a few years ago, my breast doctor and I decided to go on the offensive against the "area of concern" she had been monitoring. A double mastectomy later, and the not-if-but-when dance was over.
I had no emotional issues about whacking off my breasts, in part because I had long thought of them as mere silos for potentially fatal missiles. I wrote my doctor a parody, to the tune of Bye Bye Blackbird: "No more mammograms or MRIs, and my brand new boobs are just the perfect size, bye bye boobies." Over wine, friends and I made a list of tattoo "nipples" such as bulls' eyes, owls (hooters), and hand prints. I and my new ta-tas, Thelma and Louise, were on our merry way. (My then fourteen-year-old niece said in her most appalled eye-rolling voice, "You named them?")
Then one day I stood at the sign-up table for a Race for the Cure event. In Komenland, survivors are given special recognition, a badge of membership in The Sisterhood that sets them apart from those participating in an event in honor or in memory of loved ones, or just because.
Which box to check? The "area" that concerned my doctor was pre-cancerous, so am I a "survivor" if technically I never had breast cancer? Surely the mastectomies, those awful drains, the tissue expanders, the reconstructions count for something. Am I less of a survivor than the woman who had one cancer cell and a simple lumpectomy? Yet dare I equate myself with my mother, after I rubbed diaper rash cream on her bald head to soothe the irritation from her wig and stood helplessly as she hugged the toilet?
This wouldn't even have been a question until recently. The Big C was so verboten that my grandmother didn't even tell her own family right away. In the next generation, support groups were common, but women certainly didn't broadcast their medical history in hot pink letters. Now, though, the pink ribbon is almost – dare I say it – bragging rights.
Don't get me wrong. I'm glad that we've come out of the mammary closet. I'm thrilled that millions of dollars are poured into research so that my nieces and their daughters may never get an invitation to the booby dance. I have never questioned that my decision was the right one for me. But I do question whether I am claiming something I didn't "earn" if I join in one of the ubiquitous conversations with a me too.
What exactly does it mean to avoid being voted off the breast cancer island? Is the person who evacuates his beach house during the first winds of a hurricane less of a survivor than the one who rides out the buffeting gusts and torrential rains in the house next door? Is the neighbor to the other side a survivor if she was on another continent when the storm demolished her house?
I don't know.
So each October I find my cheeks burning pink to match the caps and Cuisinarts and, yes, cars. I don't regret cheating cancer, but I feel like I may be caught cheating on the comprehensive test, nailed for circumventing a climbing wall of the obstacle course. Then I ease my guilt with one thought: I don't know if I am a survivor, but I know that I am alive.
Amy Bourret is the author of the novel Mothers and Other Liars, a Target Stores Breakout Book published in August by St. Martin's Press. She is happy to report that she and Thelma and Louise are all in the pink.