The best stories usually come looking for me.
Last spring, an acquaintance called and asked me out for a drink. Amy Patterson (right) is kind of an icon in this town. She’s gorgeous, a successful stylist and motion picture costumer, and for years she owned a marvelous vintage boutique called Venus and Mars.
I knew about Amy’s cancer only through the grapevine of overlapping friendships.
“I’m kind of sick of the whole pink ribbon thing,” she told me, over a number of beers at a nearby watering hole. At first, I wasn’t sure what she meant. But Amy is one of those wickedly funny people whose biting humor sneaks up on you. Maybe it’s because she’s so tiny and blonde and lovely that you don’t expect the commentary to be quite so pointy-edged. But by the third beer, she had me alternately nodding vigorously and snort-laughing and listening intently with silent awe, as she told me about her breast cancer saga.
The bottom line was this: to her, the story of breast cancer as told in the prissier women’s magazines often gets Hallmarkized and shrink-wrapped in sticky pinkness, in a way the irreverent and very real Amy Patterson just can’t abide. Why do breast cancer sufferers always have to spin their story into something “inspirational” and “positive”? she wanted to know. Because the truth according to Amy is: sometimes cancer’s not inspirational. Sometimes, it just sucks.
For Amy—and she’s apparently not alone—the annual shower of pink every October represents that Hallmark-card-ish glossing over of the uglier realities of cancer: the physical pain and draconian treatments, mounting debt and fights with insurance providers; rising cancer rates and the question of environmental causes. And it leaves a glaring, open question: although Pink Month has clearly worked miracles in the arenas of fundraising and awareness, do you really know where most of your money is going when you buy a pink-ribbon sandwich or eyebrow pencil? And as Amy points out, what about all those underfunded diseases that deserve attention too? “We get a whole month?” she quips. “It’s overkill.”
Not in Sync with Pink
Barbara Ehrenreich would seem to agree. Here’s what she has to say on the pink phenomenon in her essay, Welcome to Cancerland:
“Yes, atheists pray in their foxholes— in this case, with a yearning new to me and sharp as lust, for a clean and honorable death by shark bite, lightning strike, sniper fire, car crash. Let me be hacked to death by a madman, is my silent supplication — anything but suffocation by pink sticky sentiment…”
Amy called me that day to share this and other heresies, so often silenced by the ubiquitous cheerleadery-upbeat culture of breast cancer. She wanted to hear the story told in a different way, a way that reflected her own experience of the disease, instead of that shiny, sanitized PR version that makes her roll her eyes. She wasn’t sure exactly what form that story would take; but the idea took powerful hold in my mind. I started looking for other heretics. And I kept coming back to Ehrenreich’s essay:
“The effect of this relentless brightsiding is to transform breast cancer into a rite of passage — not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against, but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or graying hair. Everything in mainstream breast cancer culture serves, no doubt inadvertently, to tame and normalize the disease: the diagnosis may be disastrous, but there are those cunning pink rhinestone angel pins to buy and races to train for.”
To the uninitiated, this sounds like sacrilege. Races-for-the-Cure and pink ribbons are most decidedly in the one-must-not-make-fun-of-this category, right? Right up there with autism and Jesus? But then, I thought, who am I to decide what’s sacred to people who, unlike me, have endured the horror and indignity of cancer? I figure, anybody who’s been through that hell ought to be able to crack some irreverent jokes and pose a few pointed questions, without getting shouted down by sanctimonious haters—many of whom have never actually had this disease.
The heretics, it turns out, are everywhere.
They’re sitting next to you at a restaurant, or at church, or pounding a few shots just down the bar. You won’t know they’re there, but they recognize each other—the chemo-port scar signals their shared experience, like a secret handshake; but you won’t see them wearing a pink sweatshirt or rhinestone ribbon pin. They’re not down with it.
“It feels like a party. It’s a festival,” says Amy. “But we need to move on!” The point being: she had cancer. She doesn’t really feel like celebrating.
She feels like living her life.
“I don’t want to be reminded of it every day.”
That, more than anything, was the common ground shared by the three women I interviewed for the HER Nashville feature that grew out of Amy’s initial idea. Late last summer, I took a deep breath and called two more breast cancer survivors, recommended to me by friends, and nervously asked them if they’d like free rein to tell their stories—good, bad, and ugly—and how they felt about pink.
For local publicist and force of nature Jayne Rogovin (above), and for the utterly forthright, clear-eyed Sara Baldwin, mom of 2 (and possibly the most mentally healthy person I have ever met)—opening up about the frustrations, indignities, and absurdity of cancer was apparently not a problem. I spoke to each of them for more than an hour. I doubt I’ll ever be the same.
Sara and Jayne spoke movingly about what most of us never consider: what it’s like to imagine yourself gone from the earth. Soon. As a strong likelihood. Stop and think about that for a minute. And they also told wildly funny stories: about the silly, thoughtless things people say to cancer sufferers; about what life is like when you’re as hairless as a hypoallergenic chihuahua; even about what it’s like to have sex when you have no hair or boobs.
And they had a few things to say on the topic of All Things Pink.
“I burned some of it,” Sara laughs, referring to the care package full of pink stuff she got from a well-meaning care provider. “I don’t want any part of it,” she explains. Cancer is the last thing she wants to think about, and she doesn’t need any pink shwag to remind her of it.
“If I were to write my memoir,” quips Jayne, “It would be, ‘I Hate Pink.'” A lifelong “tomgirl”—she grew up surfing in Miami and now rides horses several times a week—Jayne’s not about the girly stuff. She wears her “Fuck Cancer” cap all over town and feels no need whatsoever to apologize for it. “I hate frou frous,” she says. “I hate little bows and little dogs, and that’s what the whole pink thing reminds me of.”
Reflections on the “Good Girl” Syndrome
I can already hear the naysayers, gearing up to start speed-typing their anonymous posts of rage. To them I say this: flame me all you want. But I don’t think anybody, especially any cancer-free people, gets to sit in judgement of these three women or the ways they choose to tell their stories. They want to wear a “Fuck Cancer” hat? More power to them. They want to get mad and cuss and shake their fists and burn pink teddy bears? I’m all for it. I won’t judge. Because, when it comes right down to it, what the @#$% do I know about any of it?
After more than 40 years of striving to be the Good Girl, to make sure everybody in the room is happy and doing backbends to keep from offending anybody, I’ve come to wonder why the world wants women, especially Southern women, to be so damn perfect anyway. Why do we have to put on a “brave face” all the time? Why, you ask? I think it’s because, at some level, we’re not expected to live for ourselves. Because if you plug “putting on a brave face” into the universal translator, you get “smiling and making everybody else feel better.” It means not showing the world our anger. It means, as in the punchline of an old joke about finishing school, saying “That’s fabulous” when you really mean “That’s bullshit.”
Maybe there’s another way to be courageous, a way that doesn’t require pretending that everything is OK. Maybe it has to do with overcoming our good-girl conditioning and telling it like it is, even if the world would prefer us to endure certain things quietly and keep them under wraps. Like alcoholism. Rape. Cancer. So unladylike. (I hate that word.)
For Sara Baldwin (above), a “brave face” seems to mean being straight with people, telling them what she does and does not need from them. It means putting her recovery ahead of everybody else’s needs for a time. “I did grow a backbone. A much-needed one,” says Sara when I ask her, are there lessons or positives in all this? “I very quickly discovered that life was too short to be living it to please others…without hurting anyone else, you’ve got to live your life for yourself. This is the only life we have. This is it.”
Sara talks about how she soaks in the lovely, quiet moments more than ever before—golden light in the mornings as she strolls her Franklin farm and watches her chickens poke around in the grass. She talks about how glad she is that she’ll most likely be here awhile for her kids…but also for herself. “I want to live,” she smiles. “I love my life. I don’t want to leave yet.
“Maybe that’s what it is about the pink ribbon thing,” Sara muses. Her reaction to pink had so far been visceral, not fully thought out, but now she’s reflecting on what might be behind it. “It sort of makes light of all this.” All the pain, the terror, the private face-to-face-with-death moments—it can’t be summed up with a cutesy logo. It’s an oversimplification, that little pink loop—a none-too-subtle hint to women to put on a nice wig, smile for the camera, and act like the ugly stuff just isn’t there. Be feminine, it tells us. And being feminine often seems to mean shutting up.
Clearly, pink ribbons mean different things to different people—and whether you love them or hate them, it ought to be OK with the rest of us. There should be room for dissent in the ranks of women, and of breast cancer sufferers, when it comes to how to feel about pink—whether to wear it proudly or set it on fire.
For Jayne, the ribbon just doesn’t fit. “It tries to put a nice pretty package on a terrible disease,” she says. To her, pink’s about syrupy smiles; but what’s so wrong with being mad? When I ask Jayne what pisses her off the most about the disease, she (like Amy and Sara) is glad to tell me. “It usually revolves around not knowing, the unfairness of it,” she says. “And the hardest thing for me is to find a balance of living in the moment, and living in the future.”
I wonder if, maybe, nobody’s asked them these questions before. The way the stories pour out, in a thank-god-somebody-finally-asked-me-that cascade of accelerating thoughts and ideas—I get the impression that maybe, our womenfriends just want to be asked how they really are, and sincerely listened to, without judgement. Even if the answer is, “I’m not good. Not good at all.” That may be a better gift than all the casseroles we can possibly bake.
Related post: From Awareness to Action, from Ribbons to Research (amazing, heart-wrenching blog by an astrophysicist with metastatic breast cancer)
There’s more dissent in the ranks – See the movie trailer for Pink Ribbons, Inc: