For Those Who Dread October

Breast Cancer Awareness Month and it’s highly successful advertising campaign is unavoidable, especially this time of year. From the numerous limited edition products on the market to the pink lights adorning skylines across the country, it’s clear that as a culture we have rallied around this important women’s health issue in a big way.

But what if you don’t want to remember breast cancer?

There is no doubt that the success of “Pinktober” has inspired countless people. It provides a sense of community for women and families living with the fear and heartache of a devastating diagnosis, and increased awareness leads to more donations of time and money toward finding a cure. Awareness also leads to more women having mammograms and detecting the disease early. The “fight” against breast cancer has grown in size exponentially, and this is a powerful force for good.

But what does it mean for a person to “fight” their disease?

If you are a woman with Stage IV breast cancer who has chosen palliative care, does this mean you have given up the fight? Does the Breast Cancer Awareness Movement leave room for your experience?

These are questions that occur to me as I reflect on the important fact that every individual’s experience of illness is unique. As we see in the fine print on the Cancer Treatment Centers of America commercials, “no case is typical. You should not expect these results.”

The Pink Ribbon embodies hope and strength, which serves to lower anxiety and help motivate ill individuals to “keep fighting.” Lowered stress and strong social ties have been shown to support positive health outcomes. However, the inevitable negative emotions that come with illness should also be given a voice, especially for those who take issue with the word “fight.”

Barbara Brotman of the Chicago Tribune sheds some light on the experiences of those women suffering from metastatic cancer. For them, the disease is always on their mind because it will undoubtedly take their life. Brotman interviews Rebecca del Galdo, age 46, who describes the isolation that metastatic cancer patients feel in the larger Breast Cancer Awareness Movement:

“You hear the word “survivor” and that doesn’t apply to someone with metastatic breast cancer. It’s hard, at least for me, to not take it personally when people say, ‘I beat this. I didn’t let cancer get me.’ I didn’t do anything different than anyone else who has had breast cancer. It’s just how it happened in my body. It wasn’t that I didn’t eat right or I didn’t exercise or I was negative.”

For the full article, click here.

I write about this issue today to advocate for awareness and sensitivity with regard to those living with late stage cancer of all kinds, their families, and the healthcare professionals who work hard every day to care for them and honor their experience. Although more and more people are recovering from cancer as detection and treatment continues to improve, there are still so many families who are not so lucky, who will be living a different kind of survivor narrative.

As a culture, it’s important for us to unpack the meaning of words like “strength” and “fight,” and remember that the human condition in the face of illness is unique and complex. While many find empowerment in Breast Cancer Awareness Month, others may feel alienated, forgotten or even blamed for not being a “survivor” or even choosing not to “fight” an illness that has progressed to later stages.

Let us make more room for loved ones who will not have a happy ending in a traditional sense, and continue to ask ourselves how we can acknowledge and honor their end-of-life experiences.

If you or someone you love is looking for support while living with illness or grief, ECS clinician Amy Peterson, LMFT is a specialist in medical family therapy. Contact her to set up your free phone consultation.

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