Breast cancer awareness and grief–when seeing pink means seeing red, part 2

Prevention and blame — my second post of several breast cancer awareness experiences to keep in mind during October’s breast cancer awareness month … and beyond.

Scene One:

I was a child when Grandma died of cancer. I was sad, of course, and I’d only seen Granddaddy cry once before (at his brother’s funeral, when I was even younger). I remember his tears from that day more than my mom’s. Memories from then include crying, confusion, coordinated chaos — and one big burst of anger.

It happened not long after the family gathered at Granddaddy’s house following Grandma’s funeral. For several days, well-wishers and those bringing meals or offering condolences had come and gone, but I’d not paid much attention. (As an adult I’m ashamed that back then I was as upset by my older cousins’ distraught distraction as by Grandma’s death. I adored and idolized them, and since they were “visiting” — for the funeral — from out of state, I wanted them to play with me.)

From the room where I shadowed my cousins’ every move, I heard loud, angry voices. Of course, we dropped what we were doing and ran to see the commotion.

The nuances were lost on me, but over the years the details filled in as I heard varied accounts of what happened. Several adults clustered near the door, where Granddaddy — our soft-spoken, patient Granddaddy — yelled while shoving a woman out the door!

From what I later learned, the woman, an acquaintance of Grandma’s, had come to offer her services to the family. Well, one specific “service,” anyway.

Since Grandma’s death proved cancer ran in our family, the woman explained, she thought we’d be eager to buy cancer insurance policies from her.

Scant hours after Grandma’s funeral.

So, yeah, Granddaddy yelled and kicked — er, shoved — her out the door.


Scene Two:

Twenty years later, while Mom recovered from mastectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy, we had an encounter with a long-time friendly acquaintance. Everyone within that circle knew of her battle, so it was normal and appreciated when people inquired about her condition in the context of offering their support (mentioned prayers, in-person visits, dropped-off casseroles, etc.).

What we didn’t expect was one man’s crusading tirade.

He approached with a friendly smile and handshake. He asked how she was feeling (as tricky a question for someone fighting a deadly disease, I might add, as for someone living with grief).  Her response was somewhat noncommittal but positive, as usual. (She often made jokes about needing to wear a wig.)

Without preamble, the man stepped into her personal space and lectured her.

According to his uninvited rant:

all doctors were too greedy, too quick to slice into people for no good reason;

all pharmacies and drug manufacturers were only in business for the money and tailored their medications (including chemotherapy) to make people sicker so they’d have to buy more medicines;

all breast cancer was caused as much by wearing deodorant as by underwire bras …

[It’s a good thing this was during the mid ’90s. He’d probably have exploded had he heard about Turing’s recent drug price hike from $13 to $700+ per pill!]

Mom tried speaking up on behalf of her oncologist, a caring and compassionate doctor who fought hard for her. But this … this … person wouldn’t let her.

I can’t remember the details of how we got away from him. I do remember the fury I felt. How dare he attack her for seeking treatment!? How dare he attempt to undermine the course of care she’d carefully studied and sought out!?


If you can't say something nice, don't say anything!

When grief or illness encroach, be supportive in positive ways that aren’t intrusive. (Image by Teresa TL Bruce,

Scene Three:

I can’t count how many times this has played out in casual conversations with acquaintances in the decades since Mom’s diagnosis. Talk of family or health or October’s overwhelming pinkness often leads to mentioning my late mother’s breast cancer.

And then I’m asked a question so personal it’s inappropriate. “Have you been tested? What have you found out?”

The implication is that because my mother (and grandmother) had breast cancer, I must have rushed out to have myself tested for the BRCA gene mutations (which indicate an inherited predisposition toward some breast cancers — in about 5 percent of cases*).

The people who ask seem to think I should tell them all about it.

Others ask how often I do breast self exams and whether I’m up to date on mammograms. 

They mean well. I get that.

But it’s not their place to ask.

Breast cancer awareness month means people can initiate conversations about prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. But it’s not open season to delve into women’s medical histories and decisions.

(Now go schedule a mammogram for yourself, or talk the women in your life into scheduling theirs.)



What are your thoughts on this topic?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.