I'm told that October is breast cancer awareness month. I don't put much
stock in these arbitrary assignments of months to diseases, or even races
of people. To me, the pink ribbons and plastic bracelets proliferating on
store shelves near artificial pumpkins and paper pilgrims' hats smack
primarily of marketing.
Still, October will always mark my first consciousness of cancer in my
body. You see, this time last year, I was caught unaware when cancer burst
out of the ducts of my right breast.
This October I am under doctor's orders to be still while my body heals
from the radical mastectomy and reconstruction of a breast-like structure I
endured a month ago. I am sleeping in a hospital bed in my living room. I
take Percocet every four to six hours.
But to me, this isn't a sad story. I've read sad stories. Soon after I was
diagnosed, I voraciously read first-person accounts by other breast cancer
survivors. I was struck by the horror of their experiences. I decided to
focus instead on the creative force of living.
Lying in the hospital the morning after my surgery, I could feel pain like
I've never felt before. I felt weakness, too, after spending six hours
under anesthesia and the knife the day before. But I could also hear the
cranial sacral fluid in my spine begin to move. When I heard my intestine
kick back into gear, I knew I'd be well.
Cancer survivors tell me that this disease can help bring into focus those
things that really matter in life. Mortality has a way of doing that. What
surprised me about cancer, the treatment of which has already taken a year,
is how many changes it took me through.
In the early days, I was afraid. I leaned heavily on my aunt, who survived
breast cancer 25 years ago. Yet my aunt needed to go back to her life after
a few months, and my husband and I learned to cope on our own. Other
friends stepped in. As I became first a veteran of the chemotherapy room,
and later of the surgical ward, fear gave way to confidence in my
Singer Olivia Newton-John's "Stronger Than Before" album, released this
month exclusively through Hallmark Gold Crown stores, is a moving tribute
to the resiliency of breast cancer survivors. Newton-John survived the
disease herself 13 years ago.
I loved this golden-tressed pop star when I was a girl. I hadn't listened
to her in years. But I gambled $9.95 on CD and I found a nuanced, mature
artist, whose original songs gave me inspiration as someone in the thick of
On "Phenomenal Woman," a song adapted from a Maya Angelou poem, Newton-John
is joined by fellow breast cancer survivor Diahann Carroll and Patti
LaBelle, whose sisters had breast cancer. The power of these women's
experience bursts out of the stereo as they sing of "The reach of my arms,
the span of my hips, the stride of my steps, the curve of my lips."
Hallmark is giving $2 from the sale of each CD to the Susan G. Komen Breast
Cancer Foundation, according to Newton-John's Web site. I don't mind this
But I am concerned about everything, from pink tweezers to shaving lotion,
using the breast cancer label. A recent article in The New York Times
reported that donations from these sales vary widely. Some companies seem
to mark up the "breast cancer" items while refusing to disclose the amounts
of their donations. Some won't even identify the charities that benefit.
So if you want pink tweezers, buy them. If you want to donate money to
cancer organizations, write a check.
I am also concerned that the mass marketing of breast cancer takes
attention away from other, deadlier cancers. Lung cancer, for example,
kills more people than any other cancer.
As the U.S. News and World Report stated in June, donations for breast
cancer research total more than $20,000 for every life lost to the disease.
Donations for lung cancer research total only about $2,000 per life lost.
Cancer, which chemotherapy, natural medicines and a mastectomy successfully
removed from my body, has left me desiring to keep things real.
That's why I was moved last weekend when I attended the Cowlitz Indian
Tribe's sixth annual pow wow. Toward the end of the small and homey pow
wow, a Yakama man fanned the drum. Later, he said, he was praying for the
Native kids who join gangs, for alcoholics and for cancer survivors. He
pointed to his sisters, elegant ladies with shawls draped over their arms,
who had survived.
As much as I appreciated his prayer, I think the Cowlitz filled the dance
floor for another reason. I could see them smiling at each other as those
wearing jeans timidly took their place among those in regalia. I could see
the nation coalescing; some sure of their steps, others feeling their way.
When the song finally ended, these folks let up not one but two shouts of
They marked in that moment that they had indeed survived the genocide, and
now they were alive and Cowlitz. On the way home, I realized that that is
something we should be grateful for every day -- that we are Native, and
Kara Briggs is a Yakama journalist from Portland, Ore., where she is
currently on medical leave from her job at The Oregonian. She chronicles
her battle with breast cancer in this biweekly series. She is a former
president of the Native American Journalists Association and winner of the
2004 Richard LaCourse Award for Investigative Journalism. She is interested
in the experiences of readers who have had cancer and also remedies,
cultural practices or unusual treatments that have helped them. Contact her
by e-mail at email@example.com.
October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Women 40 and older are urged to make an appointment for an annual
mammogram. For more information about breast cancer or to learn how you can
receive a free or low-cost mammogram, call (800) ACS-2345 and ask for the
American Cancer Society Navigator, or visit www.cancer.org.