I don’t make any secret of the fact that I had breast cancer last year. Ask me anything about it. No question is off limits, although I may not answer it, which is my prerogative. I write about the experience occasionally, and every time I do, I think I’ve said all I have to say about it, and then something else comes up and I feel the need to write about it again. It’s very annoying.
A while back I was invited to “like” a breast cancer awareness site on Facebook. Under the circumstances, not liking it felt rude and selfish. Why, I asked myself, should I not give a Facebook thumbs-up to a site that does much to raise awareness about early detection and treatment options? If I liked the site of that kid whose mom would buy him bagpipes when 1000 people liked his site, why shouldn’t I lend my virtual thumb to a cause that actually makes a difference? Unable to come up with a good answer, I reluctantly clicked the “like” button.
A couple of weeks ago, a woman I met through a mutual acquaintance said, “Jeff tells me you’re a survivor, too.” She told me about her own breast cancer experience and then gave me a Relay for Life T-shirt. I didn’t want it, but again, I felt it would have been rude not to accept it, so I did, and as soon as I could, I stashed it in a trash bag with other articles of clothing for donation.
Yesterday I received a card from a friend who was diagnosed with breast cancer a couple of years before I was. “Relay for Life is August 7,” she wrote. “Come join us for the survivor lap at 11:30.” I don’t want to walk in the Relay for Life, not even in the survivor lap. While I am happy and grateful to have survived cancer, I don’t want to be identified first and foremost as someone who had it in the first place. My life isn’t about having had cancer.
I am incredibly fortunate, and because of that good fortune, people expect me to wave the pink-ribbon flag and proselytize for the cause. And perhaps I should, but I know myself. I know I won’t do anything beyond quietly donating to the American Cancer Society and taking magazines to the radiology waiting room at the local hospital, because no one who is waiting for a biopsy should have to read a ten-year-old magazine.
I don’t know how to explain to people that I don’t want to wear a goddamned pink ribbon or a Relay for Life T-shirt. I’m no one’s poster child. I didn’t want to have cancer. I don’t want to be reminded of it. I want it to be over, behind me, done, and I wish to hell I could quit writing about it. The experience was a lesson in mortality, among other things. No one likes to be reminded of death—potentially one’s own—and I am no exception.
But because I don’t know how to explain this—nor do I necessarily wish to explain myself—it’s easier to click “like,” to pretend I feel sisterhood with a stranger, to accept the T-shirt, to lie about being out of town on August 7. Easier, but less honest, completely inauthentic, and no more me than the color pink. I wish people wouldn’t expect so much. I gave my tits for the cause. Isn’t that enough?