With the month of October nearly ending and with it my vow to avoid all things pink in the name of raising awareness for Breast cancer nearly fulfilled, I feel I should write this post. That and because I kind of miss my mother.
For nearly a year, cancer has been in our home. It was probably there a while longer but we only figured out its existence like the squatter who leaves behind a scratch on your favorite coffee table and you realise your home wasn’t just yours for a while. My mother got diagnosed with Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS) at early Stage II within a month of her sister’s diagnosis of the same type of cancer only at Stage IV. My mother opted to undergo mastectomy because of the higher risks of repeated surgery in case the cancer came back after a block incision, something that my surgeon father saw a lot of over the years.
Now you may wonder why despite having breast cancer running in my family, I chose to avoid the pink-fest that is also known as raising awareness for breast cancer. It’s because breast cancer runs in my family that I made this choice.
My encounter with the pink awareness wasn’t encouraging even before I knew of my inheritance. I first became aware of the awareness mission when Facebook statuses stating simply a colour/alcoholic beverage/what-have-you-not-but-don’t-tell-the-guys-just-for-us-girls began to make rounds in my peer group and I was messaged (yearly) that they were all in the name of raising awareness for breast cancer. Now I don’t remember the exact reaction I had to these messages but I remember feeling something a lot like this…
Hilariously missing the point, but harmless. Now since we had already gotten off to a dubious start my relationship with the awareness campaign continued to be… weird for a lack of better word. I have no problem donating money for medical causes especially considering I grew up with parents who were both gung-ho about helping others from their respective careers.
I’ll skip the humble-bragging because I find it awkward to talk about my parents’ philanthropic work. Long story short no, I have no qualms about donating. What I do worry about is that where the money is going and how it’s handled as well as with how the awareness is being “raised”. Slogans like “Save the boobies/tatas” while catchy make me want to repeatedly bang my head against a wall. I will go as far as to say “Please don’t save the boobs” because newsflash those boobs are neither endangered animals nor sentient beings in persecution, they are attached to a human being whose life matters more than the breasts themselves. Because phrases like these are the reasons why my mother sometimes sigh and say that she is no longer feminine. Because we appear to have hypersexualized an organ so much that we have forgotten the person those organs belonged to. So please don’t save the boobs, save the person.
Following my mother’s diagnosis there was a flurry of doctor’s appointment, check ups, surgery, flight plans to book and communicating with three different oncologists in three different places, with one of them being in a different country. None of it was easy, but I reckon it was a lot easier for us to handle than it would have been for a layperson who didn’t have all the necessary connections we did. The clinical tests on the tissue post-surgery were all carried out through my Dad’s contacts in India, the oncologists were recommended by other doctors who are family friends and while I was communicating with the oncologists I kept thinking how terrifyingly helpless it could feel without the support system. This is the part where organisations that work in raising awareness could help so much. They could help get the patients get in touch with the oncologists, suggest which diagnostic centres are likely to give faster, accurate results, tell the patients what they are likely to expect after the surgery, the chemo. None of the organizations in my city were equipped to deal with any of this. Most of them weren’t even associated with any clinics or hospitals, they simply worked to “raise awareness”. I should note even pre-diagnosis I have spent a lot of time in a number of hospitals and I think I have only come across any actual pamphlet about breast cancer twice. On the other hand, I have lost track of the number of times I have had something pink shoved at me in the name of awareness. This is on par with the bizarre claim of having a breast cancer vaccine that I talked about earlier.
I don’t know if this is a global phenomenon or if that’s just how things are in Bangladesh. If it’s the latter then we need to do better. Suggesting ways women can check their own breasts for lumps is good, what would be even better would be to tell them who to go to after they have found the lump (if you have tried to find an oncologist by yourself in my city, I understand your pain and frustration and should you need help please let me know).
Our breasts are still not a part of our body that most Bengali women I know are comfortable talking about in public or in private. We need to break this stigma, because at the end of the day when a lump in your breast rots into your bones comfort becomes a luxury we can no longer afford.
This is an entirely personal account of dealing with awareness campaigns, other people have explained it more articulately in places like ThinkBeforeYouPink and this video that resonated with me a lot.