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.)



When Will Things Be Back to Normal for My Grieving Friend?

When will life get back to normal for a grieving friend? The short answer is simple: never. It won’t ever be the same.

The long-term answer is more complex. The reality is that when their loved ones died, so did the “old” life they knew. Almost as soon as the funerals end, friends of the bereaved settle back into “normal” routines. For them, “life goes on,” but for the bereaved it does not. (Please see my earlier post: Do NOT Tell the Bereaved “Life Goes On”.)

A couple of month after my husband died, I came across an old copy of a Life Change Index Scale.* It was a chart listing the “points” attributed to various stressful life changes. (Not life pauses or hiccups or bubbles. Changes.) For each pertinent event I’d experienced within a year, I was to add up the associated numerical ratings. At the bottom of the page, the scoring caution went something like this:

  • under 150 meant 30% chance of illness in the near future
  • 150 – 299 meant 50% chance of illness in the near future
  • 300+ meant 80% chance of developing illness in the near future

I actually laughed at my result. My score was over 750.

The reason I bring up this scale is that in every version I’ve seen since, the highest stress point value (100) is attributed to the death of a spouse. The deaths of other close family members are also highly ranked (63). For me, seeing those numbers on a black and white chart validated how off-kilter I felt. The first two words of the title — Life Change — acknowledged the irrevocable shift from my “old normal.”

Eventually, your grieving friends will forge a “new normal” path through life. This will likely take years. Yes, I said years. The minute by hour by day by week by month by year adjustments are huge, and the human mind and body can only handle so much at a time. Be patient with your friend, who probably won’t seem like himself or herself for a long time.

Early in my raw grief, I wondered when I would feel like myself again. Most people who’d been widowed much longer than me assured me that it would happen, but they alerted me not to expect it too soon. At first, I felt despair when they cautioned it took about three years for most of them. Three years?!? I didn’t know if I could make it feeling so horrible for three more days — how could I fathom feeling this way for three years?!?

The first year was difficult beyond description. My mind and body were so overloaded I have huge gaps in my memory. I look back over the things I wrote for myself in journals and in correspondence with other widows and widowers and, until I read my own words, I have no recollection of how I got through some months.

The second year was also brutal. During the second year I no longer felt the numbing effects of “widowed fog.” I’d thought the Year of Firsts was hard as I went through the first of every holiday and family commemoration without my husband. I’d experienced the same every-event renewal of loss the first year after Mom died, too. But during my second year as a widow, I was more aware of the increased responsibilities on my shoulders. I was more aware of how their father’s death impacted our children’s lives. I was beginning to learn to process the emotions I’d tried to ignore for the sake of getting through year one.

For me, the shift into “new normal” clicked into gear a couple of months before the third anniversary of his death. I’d known all along that — eventually — I’d be okay again. My faith had been at the core of that understanding, but it was an ethereal assurance. It took 34 months for me to begin to feel I was actually becoming okay again. That doesn’t mean I no longer dissolve into a puddle of tears from time to time, nor does it mean I don’t miss him anymore. I do both. Sometimes I still slip back into non-functioning hours when mustering the strength to hide in the pages of a good book is my best self-preservation tool. But even as I turn each page, I know when I reach the end of the chapter I’ll be able to step back into my life, my different life.

Please understand this about your grieving friends. They need time. They need your patience. They need your acceptance of how their grief impacts their lives.

I will always be grateful for those who didn’t rush me that I “should” feel or do what they thought appropriate. I will always appreciate those who did not shame me by inflicting “by now” or “already” assumptions upon me. I will always be indebted to them for listening to me without judgement. Please, do the same for your friends who’ve lost someone they love.


*One such scale is available at