Alright. I’ve hemmed and hawed and dropped hints that something major is affecting my life for long enough. Time to come clean, kind of. I’m not going to get into details until she allows me to, but I will say this. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and I’ve never before been so aware of breast cancer in my life. A very, very close and beloved relative of mine was just diagnosed with it.
We got the preliminary news in late September. The month of October thus far has been a series of tests, culminating in a surgical procedure that took place just last Friday. This relative of mine is by nature a reticent person, shy and sweet and very religious. The news hit us all pretty hard, especially because there is no history of cancer in our family.
Over the past month and a half or thereabouts, we’ve had some very long and serious talks on the phone. She promises that sometime soon, she will allow me to tell her story in her words. But she’s not quite ready yet. For now, she’s fine with me disclosing the basic facts, and I hope she’ll forgive me for reiterating the things I’ve been preaching to her.
Breast Cancer Awareness has become such a big, significant movement in America. Everyone here knows what the pink ribbon means. Every October a slew of fabulous new pink-beribboned products hit the shelves and we can all support the cause while pampering ourselves. Celebrities such as Melissa Etheridge have put a proud and brave face on the disease and proved that stars indeed are just like us.
Everyone knows someone who has had it — to quote the American Cancer Society’s key statistics, “the chance of developing invasive breast cancer at some time in a woman’s life is about 1 in 8 (12%). It is estimated that in 2007 about 178,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed among women in the United States. Women living in North America have the highest rate of breast cancer in the world. At this time there are about 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.” Some of these women might reveal their experience by wearing pink ribbons on their shirts, and buying a pink ribbon magnet for their car. Some might go the extra step, and participate in breast cancer events throughout this month, for example the Race for the Cure, which drew huge crowds in Dallas this year. Breast cancer brings out the shero in some survivors. Some proudly go bald, or choose to get amazing tattoos where their breasts used to be, as a testimony to their experience. But there are many other women who don’t speak loudly, who retreat into themselves, and shy away from support groups. My relative is one of them. So far, her family and her religion have been her chief support system. I worry that we are not enough.
I think she could really benefit from making some new friends through this adversity, hearing the stories of other women who are fighting the same fight. I’ve always been the black sheep, super outgoing one in my family, and I encourage my relatives to be the same. But despite my most passionate exhortations, this relative just gives me a hesitant “I’ll think about it” when I press the issue.
There have been times where she confides dark feelings she’s had, or thoughts that have floated across her mind like morbid clouds, and I have no option but to remain silent and let her talk it out. Not knowing what to say makes me feel powerless. Inadequate. The futility that bubbles inside me makes me cry. I want to help so much, but I don’t know how, other than by changing the subject and trying to make her laugh.
So she won’t join a support group yet. I’ve also been a pest about her diet — I want her to eat healthier than she has been, cut back on the biscuits and pastries and buck up on the protein and vegetables. But hearing this from a family member who you might still think of as a little girl, a relative like me, who has struggled with weight her whole life, hasn’t yet made an impact on her. The American Cancer Society has tons of food and fitness tips. I’ve been offering them to her — giving her suggestions on adding fruits and veggies to her diet. Easier said than done, especially if she doesn’t feel like eating much.
Sometimes I think if she lived here, her views might be different. Throughout October, the pink ribbon is in your face wherever you look. At the grocery store you can buy salad for the cure. You can go crazy at Sephora on pink products. I mean, damn — look at the current list of partners for Susan G. Komen! Everything from American Airlines to Serta Mattresses are down with the pink ribbon. With so much overwhelming support, it is easy to see breast cancer as something that can be easily overcome if you live in the USA. But I believe living in a country like my homeland — where the quality of her health care has been beyond questionable (I will tell you stories that will make your blood boil on her behalf, as soon as she allows me to), it’s still an illness many women seem to suffer quietly. Her experience has shaped her views, and her experiences thus far have not been as encouraging as they could be.
The hardest part for me, is not being at home to help. Not being available in person to hug her, to spend the night at the hospital with her, or to sit and have a cup of tea and chat about whatever comes to mind. I can’t be there in person if she needs me. All I’ve been able to do is call often, and try to offer her my two cents on everything she’s going through. The point of me writing this is to let her know she’s not the only one out there dealing with the weight of this illness. This is my way of bringing a support group to her, proving to her that women all over the world know the feelings of depression and loss that she has expressed to me. I need her to know that she is not alone.
If you or a loved one has dealt with breast cancer, please share your story with me and my relative. Please let us know what helped you the most in the darkest moments. And if breast cancer isn’t in your family, if you have small boobs and some douchebag idiot doctor tells you you’re not at risk because of that (yes, this happened), if you have never had a mammogram, or you just don’t even really think about it at all, I implore you to educate yourself. Breast cancer affects the African American community in unique ways. Think about those statistics I quoted earlier — one in EIGHT women.
Go get tested. You just never, never know.