Is it my imagination or has the Pink Ribbon circus set up fewer tents this year? Maybe breast cancer survivor identity recedes more and more each year and I don’t notice the emblems, the hype, the pink merchandise.
This year I mark 20 years of breast cancer survivorship—20 years from my first diagnosis, 12 years from the second. In the Pie Chart of Life, I have spent 31% of mine being a cancer survivor. It was real important at first, marking off each year with another toast, another adventure to celebrate and push my physical being since I felt lucky to still have one. And I am lucky. I am 64 and I did not die from breast cancer or anything else.
At Year 5—a big milestone year for all cancer survivors—I went on an adventurous kayak trip. But every anniversary since then has been more subdued. Twenty years is a big deal, but I have failed to schedule the white-water rafting, safari, sky-diving, or mountain trekking adventure to mark this particular orbit.
It’s not that I don’t remember—I do. It’s hard to forget the most awful year of my life. Every day I remember that I drink tea and not coffee or alcohol because chemotherapy blasted away my ability to taste them. I don’t forget the difference in my body because I see it with every change of clothing. But the privilege of living 20 more years--20 more years of other things coming into my life—outweighs all. It puts cancer survivorship squarely in the rear view mirror, and I glance at it only once in a while.
Last October I wrote about shining the pink spotlight on other important health care issues for women. This year it will be just one—cervical cancer, which has its own ribbon (teal) but not its own month. I recently commemorated my last PAP test ever with a fun blog post, but the reality that hundreds of thousands of women die each year of cervical cancer has nagged at me ever since. The public health triumph the west achieved has not yet been duplicated in developing countries. The routine screening test and lab services we take for granted are not yet part of public health infrastructure elsewhere. American women used to die of cervical cancer at the same rates, and now we don’t.
Preventing Cervical Cancer (PINCC) is a nonprofit organization working in India, East Africa and Latin America, bringing medical training and a lower tech version of routine cervical cancer screening to village clinics. While over 280,000 women die each year of cervical cancer, they bring training, equipment and volunteers to provide cervical cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment for women.
It’s a happy season in which I get to commemorate 20 years of surviving breast cancer AND my last PAP test. I don’t need a thrilling white-water rafting trip to feel alive. It seems silly to stick 20 pink ribbons on a cap to express gratitude for my life. Instead of pink balloons or flowers, I’m sending a donation over to PINCC to support their work to save women’s lives. Maybe you can too. This year’s pink is PINCC.
When my cancer journey began 20 years ago, my most urgent thoughts were about whether I’d get to see my child grow up. We had just celebrated her 9th birthday. Would I be there for the 10th? High school graduation, then college, then marriage, all those milestones a parent wants to witness with their child? I got to be there for all of them. I want the same for other women. And that’s the sort of cancer identity I want to take forward.