Susan Mihalic

Susan Mihalic
August 05
Writer & editor. Passionate about freedom of expression. Liberal, aspiring to be pointy-headed. Follow me on Twitter: @susanmihalic.


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AUGUST 1, 2010 6:29PM

The Color Pink

Rate: 18 Flag

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?

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And another thing. The word "survivor" makes me uncomfortable.
You have earned the right to feel what you feel, say what you say, click or don't click. People were always telling me, "I know you will beat this thing, because of your great attitude." S'cuse my french about that! I know women with the best attitudes, sweetest words, most appointments met on time, who are dead. So, my attitude is mine to have, and frankly has nothing to do with my fate.

Have you thought of another word to replace "survivor"?
It *is* enough. It's your prerogative, your choice, your life. You said it perfectly._r
It's one thing if you choose to do it. Quite another if it's being pushed at you from without. I say donations of money and magazines will do people finding out they have it and going through everything that goes with a cancer diagnosis more good than wearing pink tee shirts in August heat when it's not how you' d choose to spend your day. I can totally understand not wanting to be reminded of having had cancer. I can also understand resenting feeling obligated to be more involved with cancer awareness organizations than you want to be in your own heart.

I'm glad you're still with us, though, Susan!
Your last line says it perfectly (and I love it). Take your life back all the way and Just Say No... a thing done out of guilt rather than sincerity does no one any good. I don't like survivor any more than I like 'victim.' How bout we each call ourselves 'One fine bitch'? :)
dianaani, I have had that conversation with people, too. No one lives or dies because of attitude; saying that you'll be fine because you have a great attitude implies that people who die must have had a piss-poor attitude. Gee, if they'd just tried harder! I hadn't thought of another word to replace "survivor" until I read Sally Swift's comment. Now I'm not a "survivor," but "one fine bitch." I like it!

Joan, thank you.

Shiral, thanks, and I'm happy to be here, too, believe me. I'm happy to speak about the experience; I'm just not comfortable with waving the pink ribbon.

Sally, I'm totally on board. We can even abbreviate it--we're OFBs!
I prefer the term "thriver."

I have not had cancer of any type, but supporting Susan G. Komen for the Cure became an important part of my life after losing my dearest friend to breast cancer 5 1/2 years ago. I never wore pink before that -- really didn't like it.

But I'm sitting here typing this wear a t-shirt with "I WEAR PINK FOR THE CURE" boldly printed across my tits. It is a conversation starter. I get to share with people how important things like monthly self-examination and mammograms are. I proudly wear pink now, so that people (both men and women get breast cancer) will have better treatment when they are diagnosed. The odds suck. One in eight women in the US will get breast cancer.

Take care of your tits, ladies.
well said and well written
Julie, I like your term, too--"thriver." I knew you were very involved in Komen but didn't know the source of your commitment to the organization. I'm terribly sorry about your friend. I would be devastated if I lost my best friend for any reason, and I understand your passion. xo

Dorinda, thank you.
whatever you do is enough, and that's true for you or me, whether either of us had cancer, breast or otherwise, or not. i hope it's never the case that we have to tattoo the amount and kind of our charitable efforts on our foreheads. good post, susan.

i don't like 'survivor' either. just getting through the day, sometimes, makes me one of those -- ;-D -- and that hardly counts.
Now that you mention it, breast ca+survivor are almost exclusively linked, I don't recall hearing 'kidney cancer survivor'. I'm a skin cancer survivor myself...I haven't felt the urge to write about it yet, but one never knows. You're right Susan, you've given enough already. Your long list of contributions over there to the left speaks volumes.
femme, thank you. I know what you mean about getting through the day--especially since tomorrow is Monday!
Gabby, thank you so much. A lot of the language around breast cancer bugs me. I've told the boyfriend, if indeed cancer is what ultimately does me in, under no circumstances are the phrases "battle with cancer," "fight with cancer," "struggle with cancer," or any variation thereof to be used in the obituary. And I do wish I'd quit writing about it, but writing is how I make sense of things.
Us dang computer programmers are doin' this to ya. People are using computer algorithms and spiders to discover their "target audience" for all kinds of crap. Also, once you're in "a system", there's virtually no deviation from the optimal "path" for recruitment, donations, etc. as determined by some programmer.

My kung-fu Sifu decided (outta nowhere) to become a missionary. He asked if I would sponsor him. I said that I would drop a couple hundred bucks to get him started (I was with him for 5 years and he taught my 2 sons, also), but I did NOT want to be solicited from his church/organization in the future.

Guess what? I get form letters/invitations several times a year.

Dang computer programmers.

I admire your honesty. One can easily be consumed by the causes surrounding a disease. I especially applaud you for the magazines! My patients are getting pretty damn tired of reading about the Cuban missile crisis. Excellent post!
I understand you quite well, Susan. You are being honest and that is admirable. Go with your beliefs. ~R~
Good for you. I'm undergoing the last stages (I hope) of treatment for my cancer and I've noticed that the cancer forums I sometimes visit are full of people who had cancer years ago - the disease has become their identity. I also don't tell people I'm battling cancer, because I'm not. Cancer treatment involves lying quietly while some poisons drip into my arms. Most of the time, I fall asleep while it's happening. Hardly the stuff of heroism!
CrazeCzar, rest easy. The mail appeals don't bother me at all--and there's not a nonprofit anywhere that can out-mail Neiman-Marcus (I ordered a dress from them four years ago that I returned--returned, for the love of God--and I get at least two catalogues a week from them). I'd rather hear from Komen or ACS any day. It's the personal appeals I find it harder to say no to.

Steve, thank you--and you make an excellent point. If you keep a magazine in your waiting room long enough, it develops historic interest!

Fusun, thank you.
MadamRuth, thank you. I know what you mean, because I have seen cancer become entwined with my friend's identity (the friend who invited me to walk in the Relay for Life). I hope your treatments will be over very soon!
As a fellow write-to-understander (we need a tag too, right...?) please don't worry about what you write about. Anyone who can be as entertaining as you are while ruminating should be read.

I've been a little taken aback by the ferocity exhibited by some Relayers--several of whom I've had to handle in my capacity as newspaper editor ("You're not giving us enough front-page coverage! Your company cares about finding a cure, right? We'd really need you to donate more free advertising than you did last year and come to our meetings.") I call this "onecausemanship..." or "I care more about (x) than YOU, and I'm now going to make you feel tremendous guilt." I know that kind of peer pressure is encouraged by event organizers because it helps the dollars roll in, but I still find it distasteful.

I agree with the other posters've earned the right to feel what you want, give your magazines and your money to whomever you please. I like Sally's observation about sincerity--she's absolutely right.
Fetlock, another write-to-understander who also loves horses (judging from the photo and the name)? Nice to meet you! Everyone I mentioned in the post has been very nice to me, but they might not be if I didn't engage in social lying. It seems flippant and demeaning to tell someone that participating in their cause (which they assume is also my cause) is "just not my thing," but I'm also not inclined to go into detailed explanations, particularly with a stranger who almost literally gave me the T-shirt off her back. I don't expect anyone else's experience of cancer to be the same as mine in any way--physically, emotionally, mentally, residually--but I find that other people have expectations of me that I just don't meet.
You said it in a nicer way than I did. This was the impetus for my first blog post ever:
These are good questions. And, yes, giving your tits for the cause is enough. rated.
Kate, thanks for your comment. Some people clearly find participating in these events fulfilling and rewarding. It's just not for me.

Queen of the Hill, I just read your post, and I hope everyone else reading this will read it, too. You hit the nail on the head: These events "provide family members of cancer patients with a way to feel like they can make a difference, and a way to memorialize those who have died and to tell the ones who haven't that they love them." But your first paragraph summarized so beautifully exactly how I feel: "Yes, I got sucked into being a poster girl for the Relay, marching around the track to applause and teary-eyed faces, attending the dinner where we received party favors and the special T-shirts marking us as 'SURVIVORs.' I don't think I can ever do it again. Besides, where can you really wear that shirt?" I just don't think I could take that experience.

Caroline, thank you.
Thank you for this. I think alot of us just aren't sure how to approach someone who has had an experience we haven't, especially one of this magnitude. And, yes, the word "survivor" sucks. I never use it in this context.
Stacye, thank you. Something about the word "survivor" in this context conjures up victimhood for me, and throughout the experience I was determined not to be a victim (another word the boyfriend is prohibited from using in any future obituaries). I love what Queen of the Hill wrote about her own experience:
OMG, what does the "survivor lap" entail?! Survivors in pink baseball caps parading to cheers and applause, pink thingies tossed in their path, a tear jerky song blaring on a sound system? No thank you. Let's you and me put on our black T shirts and go for a hot fudge sundae instead.
greenheron, I've never been to the walk, but I suspect you're exactly right about the survivor lap. Ugh. I have a large supply of black T-shirts and a hankerin' for some ice cream, though! I'm with you.
Great post, and I followed GH here. I felt guilty even though I did not have bc that I hated this whole thing. I hate the models with big boobs getting mammagrams on the news (do they ever show a prostate exam?) and save the TT's bullshit but I felt it wasn't my place to say. I feel a bit validated that it wasn't my black sense of anarchy that led me to that conclusion, your experience and eloquence enlightened me further, thanks for that.
Rita, thank you (and thanks to greenheron for helping you find this post). I honestly don't lack gratitude that I am still here. But there's more to me than "cancer survivor." It's not my first label of choice. I thought greenheron's post was brilliant.