Published on November 3, 2016
Rebecca recently interviewed her doctor, leading breast cancer expert Dr. Julie Gralow, about the BRCA gene mutation genes and emerging research that is providing hope for more effective treatment options.
I wear a pink ribbon on my foot. It’s a tattoo actually. I have a total of three (tattoos)—one on my foot and two on my breast from where my nipples used to be. When I was younger and wanted to get a tattoo like a lot of people, I had one rule. The tattoo had to be something that I stood for, something about who I was, a symbol that people could see and immediately know what I was all about. When I found out I needed tattoos on my chest to replace my nipples, I thought that I didn’t want that to be my first experience getting a tattoo(s). My first tattoo has running arms and legs to symbolize well, a running ribbon. I saw it on a race that I ran where I met a breast cancer survivor who told me she ran through treatment. She is/was my inspiration. Four months after that race, I was diagnosed at age 35. The tattoo on my foot tells you exactly who I am. I am a runner and a survivor.
Seems like there is a lot of anger over the pink ribbon these days, and I can honestly say I completely understand. Years ago, the pink ribbon stood for awareness when in a society we didn’t want to know about breast cancer, and we were ashamed to talk about it. We wanted our women, our mothers, our grandmothers, our sisters, and friends to have the strength to get through anything without compromising our male counterparts. I’m thankful for those women who pioneered the pink ribbon. However, today, we abuse the pink ribbon. We slap it on everything from football players to yogurt. Believe me, we are fully aware of breast cancer. Awareness, check. Now we need to transition that awareness into action. What needs to happen now is more research—how do we prevent women from getting it, and how do we help those with metastatic disease?
When I was a little girl about 5 (1980-ish), my grandmother, my mother’s mother went through breast cancer. It wasn’t something we talked about in my family. Deedee, as I called her, survived, but we all saw the impact it had on her and those around her. She lived in Little Rock, we lived in Memphis. She came to Memphis for treatment and surgery, because her husband was ex-Army and there was a military base close by that would cover the cost of treatment. She had a single mastectomy and radiation. I’m not sure if she went through chemo, because I don’t remember, but I do remember her losing her hair so maybe she did. However, I do remember, as clear as yesterday, walking into my bedroom where she was staying while she was being treated and seeing my mother apply an ointment to her charred skin. Back then, they over-radiated. My mother immediately yelled at me to get out, but that image, just like her skin, is burned into my brain.
My father’s mother also had breast cancer—as did his sister and her daughter. I’m assuming that’s the side of the family where I get the gene from, because my dad also died from prostate cancer, which apparently is linked. I never knew my grandmother, Annie Mae, as she was known. She died at 34 back in 1945, maybe. Back then, they definitely didn’t talk about it (breast cancer), and I believe her death certificate indicates heart failure instead of breast cancer. Heart failure at 34…hmmm.
In 2010, I was 35 and found a lump in my breast. I went to my doctor but was told that women get lumps all the time. Despite my family history, my doctor didn’t consider me high risk, and I had eventually had to beg for a mammogram. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after, I hated telling my family. I tried to lighten it up, for them, by saying “Guess what? I’m finally getting those bigger boobs I’ve always wanted.” I hid the fact that it bothered me and that I was scared. I didn’t want to remember my grandmother’s charred skin and thinking I would look the same. I remember telling my mom and how calm she was. She was silent, then very matter of fact, she said, “So, you definitely have it (cancer)”? “Yes, Mom,” I replied. I knew she was thinking of her mom and how they “butchered” her back in the ‘80s. I also knew as soon as I got off the phone, she’d call my brother and proceed to freak out.
Being in a technology field in my career, I knew things (treatment and reconstruction) would be different for me. The good news is because of the pink ribbon, I wasn’t “butchered,” and I had an amazing team treating me. Technology and research were on my side. Almost six years later, I’m still a healthy runner and a survivor. I’m on the other side of it now, I hope. There’s always a chance it could come back, but I’m doing everything that I know how to stay healthy.
I’m also in a good position now to advocate for breast cancer. I work with several organizations that support research and helping young women who have been diagnosed. I also work with researchers to provide a patient perspective. I know that I don’t have a science background, but I do have first-hand experience with the disease.
It’s different today, because of the pink ribbon. We’ve made progress, and we’re moving just beyond awareness. Today, we openly talk about getting breast cancer, surviving and dying from the disease. We show our scars openly, and we talk about the struggle it is to go from breast cancer to hero in a matter of a few months. We also criticize the pink ribbon and talk about pink washing. I’ll admit, pink is not my favorite color. But it is what is, and I will wear it proudly. I question the companies out there exploiting the ribbon though.
My advice to you: When you see the pink ribbon, don’t just see as awareness. I encourage you to do your own research, see who the ribbon is representing and where the money (if any) is going towards. Support those organizations that support research. Just because you wear the pink ribbon doesn’t mean you’re making a difference.
At the starting line, running through life one race at a time,
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