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Welcome To Cancerland Essay Contest


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Participants at the 2010 Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, San Francisco, as seen in the documentary "Pink Ribbons Inc." directed by Lea Pool. (Lea Pool)

Between the corporate marketing opportunities and the sheer number of people who want to do something — anything — that might alleviate the suffering they've seen, pink is big business.

But somewhere between the first pink ribbon (created in the early 1990s according to Anna Holmes) and the Kentucky Fried Chicken partnership with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, pink lost its way. The term "pinkwashing" began to show up, along with a campaign called "think before you pink".

The public is finally pushing back against the relentless merchandising of this disease, as well as the myopic focus on "awareness" and the ever-elusive cure. What about preventing cancer through reduction of environmental carcinogens? What about improving quality of life for cancer patients? Today's patients can't prevent their cancers, and they probably won't live to see a cure, either.

Enter "Pink Ribbons Inc." by Swiss/Canadian filmmaker Léa Pool. The documentary recently opened in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington D.C., and will soon play other cities. It was made before the Planned Parenthood /Komen controversy.

As Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday noted, "The rhetoric surrounding the disease has become one of enforced cheerfulness, with patients converted into 'survivors' and 'warriors' — the implication being that anyone who dies from it just wasn’t fighting hard enough." Exactly!

Patients already have to carry the discomfort, grief, fear, pain and isolation of their disease. The "cheer doctrine" would also have them carry the guilt and shame of failing to cure cancer.

Perhaps the first shot across the bow was the groundbreaking 2001 essay "Welcome to Cancerland" by breast cancer survivor Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich looks upon pink teddy bears with disdain, and observes that "men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars."

Almost a decade later came Siddhartha Mukherjee’s 2010 Pulitzer-Prize-winning "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer."

In an interview with The Guardian, Mukherjee said, "A positive mental attitude does not cure cancer — any more than a negative mental attitude causes cancer."

I'm living proof that a positive attitude has no effect on cancer recurrence. I'm 10 years in remission from stage III ovarian cancer, and you could not have picked a worse candidate for such a challenge. I've often wished a more mature and optimistic woman could have gotten my cancer instead of me. Someone stronger. Someone happier. But cancer comes not to the woman you should be, but to the woman you are.

The more focused and capable women have bad days too, of course, but it seems to me they have more tools in their bags of tricks. One worked tirelessly for a cancer awareness postage stamp and rode a bike across the country to raise funds — while I fantasized about suicide for the sole purpose of wrestling a little control away from the disease ("You can't fire me. I quit!")

As pathetic a coping mechanism as that was, it did get me through the first few years. And while I still don't believe in ghosts, I have become familiar with the concept. Beside me every day is the ghost of the woman I used to be. Then there are the ghosts of women who’ve died.

When you live with ghosts, a hot pink boa might be just the ticket. Or a long walk with friends and family. A candle and a prayer. Or a joke. A cancer survivor finds a path, somehow. Limping, cursing, crying, laughing, we go on.

Amid all the pink ribbon controversy, one Washington Post reader noted: "I miss pink being just a color." I do, too.

I also miss peacefully drifting off to sleep. I realize chances are very good that I'll wake up again. But these days I find that I'm like a kid who doesn't want to miss anything. If you find me online at 4 a.m., now you know why.

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