It has become traditional to focus on breast cancer each October. We are showered in pink to remind us of an horrific disease that continues to strike women in spite of our best efforts to eradicate it. Virtually everyone has known someone who had to deal with the physical and emotional effects of breast cancer. Much of the time the debilitating treatments lead to remission but all too often some lose their battle.
We are taught as young girls how to give ourselves breast exams. It is every woman’s nightmare to find something suspicious. Some of us are perennially lumpy making it more difficult to notice slight changes but we try. Most women schedule regular visits to their doctors and endure painful mammograms just to be certain that nothing is amiss. When a doctor signals that there may be a problem with a concerned look and a battery of more extensive tests women find themselves in a state of quiet panic and worry. There is nothing quite like the not knowing, the possibility of a life changing diagnosis.
I have watched friends and family members get the words that nobody wants to hear. The diagnosis of breast cancer has been confirmed. That little lump that seemed somehow different from the rest was indeed cancerous. They embark on a journey filled with uncertainty and fear. In spite of their most valiant efforts their disease overtakes their lives. Even the most optimistic among them is never quite the same.
The treatments for breast cancer vary depending on the extent and type of cancer but all of them are invasive. They cause pain and suffering. They interrupt the normal flow of life. They debilitate and challenge. We all know exceptional women whose courage somehow makes dealing with breast cancer seem far less terrible than it really is. They keep the faith, trusting in their doctors, their families and their God. They smile through the times when they are exhausted. They wear hats or wrap their heads in colorful scarves when their lovely hair falls out in great handfuls. They do their best to keep up a good front and to continue with their routines even as they feel so very sick. They are warriors of the bravest kind but there is always the deep mostly unspoken fear that the treatments will not work or that the cancer will return even after remission.
We sometimes forget how devastating breast cancer may be. We hear success stories and believe that the fixes will be rather easy and certain. We watch women working in between therapies and imagine that the process of fighting the cancer must not be as terrible as we had imagined. We notice the dark circles around their eyes and the new wigs they are sporting but we don’t see them getting sick in the bathroom or crying from the assault on their bodies and minds. We put the onus on them to keep us feeling happy with their smiles. The truth of their situation is sometimes too hard for us to face.
Long illnesses like breast cancer test relationships. The women who are embroiled in a fight for their very lives all too often lose ground in their careers and sometimes even in their marriages. Their battlefield is littered with lost opportunities and misunderstandings. They all too often feel alone. People may rally around them in the beginning but when the going gets really tough only those who truly love and understand them remain. Everything and everyone is tested. It becomes more than just a matter of medical treatments. It is an altering experience in which only what is most important becomes obvious.
While devoting an entire month to a particular cause is laudable we have to be careful that it does not have the effect of making us lose interest. We humans are funny creatures and sometimes over stimulation causes us to lose focus. When we see football players wearing pink shoes and people running marathons in pink tutus there is a risk that we will take the situation more lightly than we should. We mistake the levity as an indication that maybe breast cancer is not as worrisome as we may have thought. We wonder if all of the attention has provided so much funding that our contributions aren’t really needed. We grow weary of the reminders that are so present for thirty one days.
We have certainly gone a long way toward eradicating breast cancer and we may even reach a day when we know how to eliminate it entirely. Until then we still have far too many women having to courageously fight for their very lives. Most of them happily make it thanks to the research and the medical advances that continue to be found. Sadly some women do in fact die. We have all known them, beautiful souls taken from us by a terrible disease. It is for them that we fight, not just in October but all year long, day in and day out. It is for the mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives everywhere that we support the efforts to find treatments and cures and ways to eliminate this dreaded disease.
October is a reminder to all of us to embrace and support the women who are either presently dealing with breast cancer or who have had to deal with it in the past. Let them speak honestly of their ordeal. Allow them to cry or laugh or react however they wish. Let them know that we are thinking of them and that we love them. If you are a woman use this month to check on your own health. Take the time to schedule a mammogram or visit your doctor. Be proactive and sensitive.
I can see the beautiful faces of the women I have known who have grappled with the monster we call breast cancer. They are perhaps the bravest people that I have ever encountered. I salute them and the families who walked hand in hand with them. They have inspired all of us who watched them. This is their month. This is our month. It is October and we gird ourselves for battle. It matters little what color we wear as long as we are prepared to fight. We must never become complacent. The stakes are just too high.
Cancer of any kind is horrific. I lost both of my grandmothers to cancer. My beloved mother was a victim of cancer. A dear dear friend was taken by cancer. A beautiful cousin is undergoing treatments for cancer even as I write these words. A good friend is fighting cancer with all of his might. My hope is that they will be among the victors that I have also known, the people who made it through the dark hours and now bask in the sunlight of their personal miracles. Find those in your circle who are battling whether it be breast cancer or lymphoma or cancer of the lung. Embrace them. Remember them. Most of all love them.