It is almost the end October, "Breast Cancer Awareness Month", and the world is awash with pink, so I thought I would address the "pink elephants in the room" in this blog post. What are the pink elephants in the room and how did I get here to write about them ? Settle in, here is my story...
In early September 2001, I was a young 28 year old newly married physician in my second year of OB/GYN residency in NYC. I'm not sure what came first, the tragedy of 9/11 or me feeling a lump in my right breast, but that month was a blur. I remember thinking "I should probably get this checked out", but frankly I was too busy learning to be a doctor to go to the doctor. So I kept an eye on it. Fast forward 2 months, and I got the dreadful news that my mom, only 54, died suddenly after a short battle with ovarian cancer. Again, I thought,"Hey, you need to check out the little lump", so a few weeks , after a saying goodbye to my young mom, while dealing with the pressures of residency, I had a few of my fellow doctor friends feel the lump. They all said, "Oh, its probably just a little fibroadenoma, you are so young". I popped into to the radiology department and had my colleague do an ultrasound and then a biopsy. I honestly wasn't concerned at all. The week before Christmas, I was at work in the middle of busy prenatal clinic when I got a page from the radiologist, so quickly called her back right in front of my patient. "Sorry Corinne, it's breast cancer". I threw my pager across the room, buried my head in my lap, as my shocked patient, who did not speak English, sat there probably horrified and confused. And so my long journey with breast cancer began. In a frantic rush, I used my doctor connections to get into all the top breast surgeons who specialized in breast cancer in young women in NYC, which was not an easy thing to do 1 week before Christmas. In the end, I decided on a right mastectomy with implant reconstruction. The final diagnosis was estrogen positive invasive lobular and ductal breast cancer, with involvement of one lymph node, making me stage 2. I needed 6 months of chemotherapy and multiple surgeries for reconstruction. Then came years of various hormone therapies, premature menopause, genetic testing issues, fertility issues, multiple other surgeries and more.
Each one of these experiences I will chronicle in their own blog posts at a later date, so stay tuned, but back to the pink elephant! The trauma, and I mean the actual real PTSD that I suffered from being a young woman with breast cancer is counter culture to the rosy feminine pink ribbon world of "Breast Cancer Awareness Month". For many breast cancer survivors, seeing the commercialization and flippant use of the pink ribbon on everything from a milk carton to a pack of batteries is enough to make us see RED not PINK! For the general public the pink ribbons may be a feel good reminder to "check your boobies" or "save the tatas", but to many cancer survivors, it feels like our suffering with breast cancer is being used to sell some retail crap. This phenomenon has an official term , "pink washing". So one of the pink elephants is this pink washing that exists throughout the year . Think before your pink!
The pink elephant has a buddy in the room- and it is the collateral damage and long term survivorship challenges of breast cancer . See, there is another type of "pink washing". It is this false narrative that once you are done with treatment, you are over it, you can move on. In the first year after finishing chemotherapy, I was at a real low point. I was filled with dread for the future, wondering if every ache and pain was mets to my bones, panicked that I would never be a mother, never live past my 30's. But on the outside I looked like a successful "survivor" , my hair had grown back, my new reconstructed breasts looked perky and life was moving on. I had beat it , right? I should be happy! I remember looking at the brochures for the breast cancer walks , with images of women of all ages with big smiles, dressed head to toe in variations of Pepto-Bismol pink and I wanted to vomit. What were they smiling about? The hot flashes? The nightsweats? The loss of their breasts? Their infertility? The recurrence risks? I was more fearful in the first few years after treatment ended then during the time I was undergoing surgery and chemotherapy. When you are getting treatment, you feel like you are taking action, your mind is 100% focused on the here and now. Once that all ends, you are left with "what's next?" That is when the meal trains, the friends checking in, the weekly visits to your medical team ends. Not many women are warned that this may be a particularly vulnerable time for them emotionally and it it can hit like a ton of bricks ( or feel like an elephant standing on your chest- a pink one!) Some women can feel tremendous pressure to put on a happy face for those loved ones around her. Much of the suffering I felt was the horror of knowing my medical problems were causing my husband, my Dad and stepmother, by siblings, my in laws, dear friends - worry and pain. That was why even during treatment I made an extra effort to wear my wig, put makeup on, look the part of a thriving survivor.
So what can you did if you love someone going though cancer? How can you help chase these pink elephants away for them?
The pink elephants still are in "my room", I just have learned to ignore them most of the time. When I can't ignore them, I live with them. By consulting and helping newly diagnosed patients and survivors, I have found purpose and focus, which is energizing and fulfilling to me. Not to "pink wash it" but that is one of my silver linings in living with breast cancer.