Protesters called out carcinogens at an anti-fracking rally in Oakland in October 2013. Photo by Zoe Christopher.
The sun is glaring. My aunt is wearing a visor to keep the rays off her face. She looks good; healthy again. The women in our family have come together in Buffalo, New York to celebrate her victory over breast cancer at the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk. I, the college-aged recently proclaimed feminist activist, have convinced my aunt and the others to join me in walking laps around my campus. I tell them the raised funds will find the cure to the disease that tried to take my aunt’s life at only 36 years old.
Before we walk, I take my family to join my friends at the Women’s Center table in the small vendor area. As treasurer of the Center, I have OK’d the purchasing of an anatomical breast model with a pea-sized lump for the event. We will educate any of the 40,000 students on our campus with the model if they walk by. My mother seems embarrassed by my willingness to engage strangers in feeling the model.
I push pink ribbons into my mother’s and aunt’s hands, insisting they also take home plastic shower hangers to remind them of the need to do their monthly self-exam. It never occurs to me that my aunt is post double mastectomy. She takes all my awareness flair and naiveté in stride, puts her arm around my shoulder, and tells me she is proud of me for being the first woman in our family to go to college. We set out with a few hundred other people to walk.
It’s my family’s fifth year doing Making Strides and fundraising for American Cancer Society. My mother and my aunt have walked in every one since the first we did together. It has taken on even more importance now that my mother has also been living with breast cancer for the last two years. Mom’s cancer was Stage 3b—aggressive. And just as my mom completed treatment, my aunt’s cancer metastasized.
Both sisters live to see my wedding day. But four months later, at the age of 43, my beloved aunt dies. My mother, the older sister by 10 years, is devastated. She channels her grief into determination. There will be a larger Making Strides team this year.
Many more Angels (team members so dubbed by my mother) gather to remember her sister and the funds pour in. The event is larger now, too, and has moved downtown to accommodate the size. The family is fully assembled, even the men come. I watch my mother’s lip quiver sometimes while we walk somberly in the rain. Then I watch her push her grief back down as she comes upon another group of walkers she knows—women from her self-organized survivors’ support group. Mom is all smiles again as she stops to hug and chat with them. When she comes back to me, she takes my hand and squeezes it. She will not talk about it but her eyes give away her pain. I fight back tears as we cross under the pink balloon arches.
There are so many Angels this year my mother thinks we need to feed them breakfast. On the morning of the walk, friends and relatives with trays of pastries and casserole dishes in hand crowd in my parents’ house. I can tell my mother is nervous. She doesn’t like to speak in front of crowds. Regardless, Mom talks to them of my aunt’s beauty and strength, her endearing sense of humor. Later, we will find out the Angels have raised over $5,000.
When we arrive downtown, chock full of coffee and carbs, the event seems to have grown by leaps again. The Survivors are donned with pink sashes, an emcee leads part of the crowd in warm up exercises, sororities and fraternities are out in full force in their “Save the Ta-Ta’s” and “Keep Second Base” t-shirts. I cringe as I strap my baby into the stroller, letting Grandma lead the team with her. When we finish our miles, we are handed yogurt with lids we are told to save, so even more money will be donated by the yogurt company if we mail them back. I watch as another group of women pick up the lids lazily discarded by litter bugs.
Pink breast cancer awareness balloons. Photo via Creative Commons.
The breakfast has been moved to the city’s Irish Center because the team has outgrown my parents’ house. Though Mom is in remission again, the toll that cancer has taken on her body is more apparent this time. All I can think of is “Who gets two different types of breast cancer?” The second cancer was not a recurrence of the first. This one is Stage One. I don’t understand why this is happening, because my mom and aunt were both tested for the BRCA gene mutations before my aunt died. The test came back negative for both of them.
I’m angry at my mother because I cannot figure out who to blame. My anger leads to guilt, so I try to be more involved with planning for the breakfast despite my own exhaustion from feeding my youngest all night long at my own breasts. The irony is not lost on me as my mother lost both her breasts this time around. Her double mastectomy was followed by two failed attempts at reconstruction over the last two years.
But still, The Walk, as it has come to be known in my family, slows for no one. Mom will not concede despite the tiredness that seems to linger even a year after the latest treatment has ended. The larger Making Strides becomes in our city, so too does the way my mother engages The Walk community she has created. My oldest daughter and I have made dozens and dozens of pink ribbon cookies as thank-you favors this year. An artist friend contributes pink ribbon angel ornaments. There is a table at the breakfast now just for educational materials.
At some point, The Walk organizers learned of my mother. She was enlisted to go on the radio to speak about fundraising in order to find a cure for breast cancer. Then they solicited her participation in a morning television show. Because of her growing advocacy work, Mom was now comfortable speaking in front of the breakfast crowd.
When we walk The Walk, though, it is obvious her energy has been zapped by the morning festivities. She cannot complete it despite her determination. We take a shortcut to the finish line, laughing at the idea of being Walk cheaters. Driving home that day, I decide that what she needs for Christmas this year is encouragement to exercise daily and eat fresh fruits and vegetables. I am confident that she will survive if she takes good care of herself. It will now be my mother’s turn to take all my flair and naiveté in stride.
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The first cancer from nine years ago is back and the diagnosis is what all Survivors fear: stage 4, metastatic disease, the incurable kind. It has spread everywhere: Mom’s spine, liver, even her brain. There will be no breakfast this year. We have finally talked her out of it. “You need to focus on yourself right now,” we say. “People will understand.” But ever the steadfast advocate, my mother insists on being at The Walk’s finish line. There are no more requests for her to be a spokeswoman.
When I arrive downtown, I can see that hundreds of pink balloons have been shaped into a mass ribbon. Our polluted Great Lake can be seen behind it on the horizon. For the first time, I do not want to be at Making Strides, but I try to stuff the unease in my pockets like I do my cold hands. As a group “Hope” cheer begins, I try not to look towards the tent where Mom would have gone to claim her Survivor sash.
I find my parents and we sit, mostly silent, until one friend or another stops by at the finish line. They tell Mom not to give up her hope for a cure. She smiles and nods, steeling herself, but I can see her lip quiver. I cry the whole way home, passing one after another relic of my city’s industrial past. At the end of my street stands the steel plant, its fence dabbled with “Brownfield Cleanup” signs every couple of hundred yards.
It is if I can feel the neurons in my brain finally making the connection. I had believed The Walk would utilize the thousands of dollars our team contributed (among the millions raised annually) to provide research, treatment, and care for women like my mother and aunt. The American Cancer Society did provide them with free resources like chemo coaches and wigs. But as the largest cancer advocacy organization in the nation, are they actively working to prevent carcinogens in our environment? I’ve never see anything suggesting as much at The Walk.
My mother and aunt were working class women who typed in the offices of machine shops, fertilizer companies, and factories. Neither sister had the “breast cancer gene.” They did carry in their bodies the toxic legacy of a rustbelt city in one of the most polluted counties in America. There are so many people affected by cancer in Buffalo that you could serve our apathy alongside our chicken wings.
The author and her mom in 2012.
Many of the Angels have been asking where I’ll meet them downtown for The Walk. They ask where my mother, who now needs either a cane or wheelchair to get around, will be. “We’re not going this year,” I reply and turn away. Some are naïve enough to not make the connection. I hear about it on the news the night of the event: “Thousands walked today to Make Strides for the Cure,” says the anchorman. Fuck that, I think. We’ve been walking and raising money for 13 years. What good did it do my aunt? My mother?
Mom and I talk about The Walk later in the week on one of the days I care for her. As I massage her feet with lotion, she tells me in a rare lucid moment that she heard some of her friends and many in our family still walked this year. I tell her about the book I’m reading, Pink Ribbon Blues. The book is encouraging me to ask tough questions: Where does the money go? Do you know much is spent on overhead to run these types of events? How much the pink “stuff” overshadows the community we first felt when we walked? I do not say these things out loud, though.
In Pink Ribbon Blues, Gayle Sulik writes: “The road less pink requires fundamental changes in the way we organize around breast cancer and in the questions we are willing to ask of ourselves, our families, our elected officials, our corporations, our medical system, our scientists, our media, and those who represent us in advocacy.”
Mom looks at herself in the mirror. She touches her bald head with her thin hand. I pick up her legs for her and tuck her into bed even though it’s the middle of the day. She doesn’t need to say what is on her mind because we both know what it is. She doesn’t belong there anymore. There is no special tent, no sash given to the dying women. No “I’m sorry we failed you” chant. No, the dying are not welcome at The Walk when you are trying to sell a cure they’ll never see.
2011 was the last year I participated in Making Strides. My mother died from metastatic breast cancer on July 1, 2012.
On her deathbed, my mother made me promise I would be a good steward of my own health. It was as if she felt she had failed herself. Having witnessed my aunt’s and my mother’s cancer diagnoses and deaths, I understood that I could not be a good advocate for myself without also advocating for others.
I feel like I have come full circle from that twenty-year-old first-time fundraiser who walked with her family to try to stop breast cancer.
When I discovered that the American Cancer Society has shown been notably silent on all of the major national pushes to better regulate toxins linked to cancer, I looked for a new way to continue my mother’s legacy of breast cancer activism. I am proud to be involved with an organization now that is the watchdog for the breast cancer movement. Breast Cancer Action tells the stories not only of the “survivors” but makes sure to elevate the voices of women living with and dying from metastatic disease. It advocates for poor patients; for racial, economic, environmental, and health justice. This organization understands that walking politely in pink won’t benefit most of us, especially those dying from breast cancer. Instead, we march with our fists in the air and our voices organized in unison. At anti-fracking demonstrations. In the halls of our government leaders. In front of the toxic waste sites that are poisoning children like my mother and aunt who played in the empty neighborhood lot that later had to be “remediated.” This is how I honor my aunt’s and my mother's lives now. For true solidarity, in word and action, is the first step on the road to actually making a difference for all the women we love and have lost to breast cancer.
If someone asks you to sponsor their walk or for breast cancer, ask critical questions and demand change.
Think about these questions from Breast Cancer Action’s Think Before You Pink® campaign:
How much money raised from the walk will go to breast cancer programs?
What breast cancer programs will the walk fund?
Do the walk’s sponsors increase women’s risk of breast cancer with other work they do?
- Does the walk present a one-sided picture of breast cancer that leaves some women out?
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