Pink October

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The arrival of October brings a wash of red, orange, yellow … and pink. With its designation as Breast Cancer Awareness month, October has become a pastel paean to mammary memory. As much a marketing gimmick as a rallying cry, the annual pinkification nonetheless contributes attention and a (generally undisclosed) portion of proceeds to breast cancer research and prevention. So for that, I’m grateful.

For me, however, October has never been as strongly associated with this disease as August. That was the month, 16 years ago, that my mother received her diagnosis: the pinhead-sized tumor found during a routine mammogram was cancer.

I got the news on a pay phone in Tucson, Arizona, where I was attending a friend’s wedding. I spent the rest of the weekend smiling my way through celebrations, but with my head 2,000 miles away with my mom in Minnesota. Aside from the obvious and natural fear for my mother, there was another emotion creeping in on me as the news settled in. I was scared for myself. At the moment of my mother’s diagnosis, my own risk category changed from non-existent to high. My risk doubled. I suddenly had a family history, along with all the vigilance and early intervention that required.  

Since then, I haven’t needed a ribbon or a license plate to remind me to be aware of breast cancer. I’m aware whenever I — or my mom or my sister — see a doctor. I’m aware when I read about women who’ve tested positive for the BRCA gene — the one associated with breast and reproductive cancers — who go to the extreme measure of double-mastectomy to outrun the disease. I’m aware whenever I think of my daughter, who has breast cancer history on both sides of her genetic family tree.

Part of my awareness is academic. The ways breast cancer is detected and attacked are constantly evolving. My mother underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy for her treatment. She chose to have a reconstruction using her own abdominal muscle rather than wearing or implanting a synthetic prosthetic (proving that I come by my hippie instincts honestly). It was a complicated operation and gruesome recovery. She’s since been told that, because of the stage and size of her cancer, current standards of care might not have encouraged surgery at all. At the time of her diagnosis, Tamoxifen was just beginning to be used to treat early-stage breast cancer and has since been approved as preventative treatment for women in high-risk categories. It’s possible that between the drug and chemo, she could have avoided the knife altogether. Knowing that just a few years can make such a huge difference in treatment options drives me to stay current on the latest research trends and newest studies, just in case my time to make a decision sneaks up as quickly as my mom’s did.

As October wanes and the water cups from Race for the Cure are swept up, the official observation of Breast Cancer Awareness Month will come to an end. The tide of pink — from the coffee sleeves at Starbucks to the deposit canisters at my bank’s drive-through — will subside for 11 months. But my awareness will remain, always reminding me of the fears, the strengths, and the hopes of women like my mother, who came out on the winning side, as well as those who didn’t survive the fight. I sometimes feel a little jaded and manipulated by the rose-colored product-placement that swells this time of year, but if the sales of Pink Lemonade 5-Hour Energy keep my daughter out of the oncologist’s office, or the Steelers’ pink wristbands remind someone else’s daughter to get a mammogram, then I guess it all comes out in the wash.

Comes out pink, of course.

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