October is officially dedicated to raising awareness of breast cancer. Bright pink athletic gear, pink-tinted yogurt containers, and pink-lit buildings broadcast support for those living with breast cancer and those attempting to cure it. As with any good campaign, there are also catchy slogans accompanying the pinking of our surroundings. “Big or Small, Save Them All” is just one of the ditties designed to get us thinking about a disease that killed an estimated 40,000 persons last year.
Since being diagnosed with breast cancer almost four years ago, I’ve had a complicated relationship with popular ways of framing of the fight against breast cancer. Leaving the critiques of the movement’s pink hew to others* I’m interested in how raising awareness has only just started to include information about the most aggressive forms of breast cancer and the stories that accompany them.
By now most of us know something about what I call the breast cancer drill: You find a lump in your breast; you get a mammogram, you’re told the awful news of having breast cancer; you suffer through the trauma of surgery, chemo, and radiation. Then best case scenario you move into remission.
This familiarity with the breast cancer drill was at the heart of my disorientation with my own breast cancer diagnosis. My back broke—not once, but twice—and a biopsy on my back discovered I had . . . stage IV breast cancer?
I’m a woman with breast cancer. The problem is that my path to diagnosis and treatment bears little resemblance to the breast cancer drill many of us know so well. I found no lump; the mammograms I had revealed no tumor; I had no breast surgery, no chemo that led to loss of hair. What does it mean to have breast cancer in a way that differs so drastically from the dominant breast cancer narrative?
In the few years since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve had more conversations about the sad parts of life than I have in all my years before the diagnosis combined. Sharing my own story with others, especially in the form of a book, has provided avenues for others to share their own struggles and grief with me.
After reading my book, a friend shared with me some of her struggles with mental illness. She then asked whether I feel burdened by the frequent conversations about my own—and others’—pain. While I wish we all had much less sorrow in our lives, I’m keenly aware that’s not the case. Talking about the tough stuff simply is what life is about these days. And recently I’ve even come to see it as my new vocation.
In contemporary conversations about vocation, we often talk about finding or choosing a vocation. We take strength-finder inventories; we envision where we’d like to be in ten years and what we need to do to get there. Much reflection on vocation in the past, however, has characterized vocation as something given to us, even when we’d prefer to be doing something else.
I was never a big fan of Christopher Hitchens’ take on religion. A self-described antitheist, Hitchens took great pleasure in mocking God, religion, and people of faith. While there are many valid critiques of religion out there, Hitchens’ attacks seemed designed to get a rise out of his readers rather than to add any new insight to the debate.
Even though I wasn’t a fan of Hitchens’ views on religion, I’ve become a fan of the man. After he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2010, Hitchens began writing about his life refracted through this new lens. The cancer did not let up, and he died at the end of last year. But his words live on, particularly in a posthumously-published book entitled, Mortality, a collection of his Vanity Fair essays on the challenges of “living dyingly” with cancer.
I didn’t find a soft spot for this man simply because we have a stage IV cancer diagnosis in common. I became a fan of his writing because I think it’s worthwhile to talk about cancer in ways that do more good and less harm.
In his essay entitled “Miss Manners and the Big C,” Hitchens makes clear why more conversations on how to talk about cancer are necessary. He points to the need for better manners by those whose insensitive comments about life with cancer leave their mark.
Almost exactly three years ago I was given a most amazing gift. On an exquisite fall day, my family and I were lured to a friend’s home and given a quilt sewn together by dozens of friends and family members. Over the past 3 ½ years, we’ve been overwhelmed by many meaningful gifts bestowed on us in response to my illness. But this one takes the cake.
The friend who came up with the idea of a quilt told us that back when I was at my sickest, she had a vision of creating a quilt for us. She considered this vision her marching orders and used the entries on my Caring Bridge site to make contact with our friends and family about participating in making a quilt.
Mailing fabric, dropping off squares at various locations, even meeting prospective sewers clandestinely in coffee shops, our friend recruited a small army of sewers to help make her vision a reality.
During the summer I moved into remission, sewers sent completed squares back to our friend. A quilting frame went up in her living room, and unbeknownst to us, her family hosted quilting nights where our friends and family gathered to stitch this quilt together.
On that gorgeous fall day three years ago, our family was rendered speechless by this gift and the deep love radiating from our dear friends and family who had gathered to stitch it together for us.