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.)



Breast cancer awareness and grief–when seeing pink means seeing red, part 1

This is the first post of several breast cancer awareness experiences to keep in mind during October’s breast cancer awareness month … and beyond.

Last month marked twenty years* since Mom died of breast cancer. More than thirty years ago her mother passed of the same; so did hers.

I’m therefore acutely aware of the importance of women getting regular mammograms and being vigilant about self-exams. That’s how Mom won more than three extra years with our family.

That’s why I got a mammogram — on the twentieth anniversary of Mom’s death, the week after the fifth anniversary of my husband’s.

The fun of getting a mammogram starts with stuffing top wear into a locked cubby. Photo by Teresa TL Bruce

The fun of getting a mammogram starts with stuffing top wear into a locked cubby. Photo by Teresa TL Bruce

It’s not something I look forward to every year. (Does anyone?) This year I put it off for months, until one day I finally called and made an appointment for the first available opening.

The irony of the timing didn’t hit me until that morning.

By the time I’d sat in the backed-up waiting room an hour after my scheduled appointment, my emotions were all ajumble.

By the second time the technician told me the equipment had a “technical problem” — and the procedure had to be repeated — my pertinent body parts felt all ajumble, too.

I cried — as much from emotional pain as from physical. When the technician assured me (bless her heart) that it would “only hurt for a few more seconds” (for the record, not true), she had no way to know the far deeper, longer-lasting pain came not from the contortions she inflicted on my body but from the losses the date itself smashed against my chest.

For a few moments, I plunged back into the mode of blurting my bereavement the same way I did during the early weeks (months, really) after my husband’s death.

To her credit, the woman tried to comfort me. She put an arm around me to give me a hug — but clad as I was only in the radiology center’s flimsy wraparound top, it felt awkward and uncomfortable. (In an oddly different way, the feeling reminded me how it felt when I was newly widowed and well-meaning men friends offered hugs — which at that raw time I didn’t want from any man I wasn’t related to.)

After the second round of images was taken (this time without technical difficulties), as my hand touched the doorknob, she offered a few well-intended words:  “You’ll be okay. You just have to get past it. Everybody has to die sometime.”


I’d just bared my soul (among other things) in front of this woman. I was crying because I missed my mom on the anniversary of her death to breast cancer, and missing my late husband, too. And she tried to make me feel better by reducing the validity of my grief? (Not to mention that she ignored my apprehension over the reason for the mammogram she’d just subjected me to.)

Yes, I saw red.

Please don’t say such things to those who are grieving! It’s true that everyone dies, but it’s not helpful or encouraging (or even nice) to make such losses seem everyday or expected or unimportant. 


*In an earlier post I rounded up the amount of time (see