Sunday, November 14, 2010

The problem with Peggy's point

I like Peggy Orenstein. Two of her books sit on my shelf, I have met her in person. We both have spent part of our lives in Minnesota.

But as much as I think she is one of the leading feminist writers, I think she did a disservice to young survivors in her recent New York Times article.

I actually agree with her on the odd looking NFL pink football gear.

But her point seems to be that breast cancer is mostly an issue for old ladies and women who are dying. This makes any edgier, sassier, breast cancer awareness campaign a hollow reflection of a misguided society.

Now don't get me wrong, I know a lot of the breast cancer awareness campaigns strike a sour note with women with metastatic disease.

But Orenstein seems to take issue with the fact that early stage breast cancer survivors could portray ourselves as strong, vital, and even sexy.

I don't have to tell most of you that whether you have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, this disease can be a sledgehammer to your sexuality. It can steal your hair, your body image, and your confidence. The road back is a fight. A long fight.

So the aspirational image of a cancer survivor who is strong, sexy, and has her sense of humor intact is an important one.

It's hard to remember that in the civilian world, most healthy women in their 20's, 30's, and 40's would rather not think about breast cancer. It's hard to blame them. Before I had breast cancer the issue was a pink haze that I tried to avoid thinking about. After all I had a 7 in 8 chance that it wouldn't be me.

Honestly, an awareness message with an edge or a sense of humor would have had a better chance of reaching me. If I had not put of my first mammogram to 42 I might have a better prognosis.

Orenstein also dislikes the idea of the breast cancer "ass-kicker". However the image of a warrior-princess is not a new one. It can make us feel like an empowered person, not a perpetual patient. Maybe it's a false hope, but it's still hope.

While dealing with a frozen shoulder and lymphedema prevents me from "kicking ass" many days, the idea that there is a archetype out there, one part wonder woman and one part anime helps me to keep fighting.

In the days after my diagnosis, I toted the book Cancer Vixen with me like a security blanket. The fact that it was a cartoon allowed my brain to absorb it, despite the shock. I needed to not feel like an old lady or someone who's life was ending.

So here is the irony.

It's true there is nothing fun or sexy about cancer.

But being a fun and sexy woman is still within reach, even if reaching is a little tougher these days.



  1. I'm with you on this one, although I can see where Orenstein's coming from, up to a point. I was never a fan of the pink ribbon onslaught, either before or after I was diagnosed. I personally think October is beginning to rival Christmas in its commercialism and excess.

    But I also see things like "Crazy Sexy Cancer" and David Jay's The Scar Project as young women claiming their power and saying "F You" to something that obviously sucks beyond question. No one can tell us how we should react, whether we chooose humor or a warrior metaphor or something else. I named my blog Dispatch from Second Base because I thought it was funny.

    Jackie Fox
    Author, "From Zero to Mastectomy: What I Learned And You Need to Know About Stage 0 Breast Cancer"

  2. Hey Jackie, great to hear from you.

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment.

  3. I didn't read the article you reference, but I agree with you on many points. I am a metastatic breast cancer survivor, and I was in my 30s when first diagnosed. I do not begrudge breast cancer awareness, and yes, I still have my sense of humor intact.

    I relate to people like Kris Carr because they chose to do something wonderful rather than giving up and giving in to a death sentence.

    I've interviewed survivors from around the country who were told they were going to die, and kicked cancer's ass anyway. They weren't victims; they were empowered. It makes me angry when people talk about "false hope." To me, there is no such thing. The only thing false is telling people there is no hope.

    Tami Boehmer
    Author, From Incurable to Incredible

  4. I had to post. I love your comments. You're right, breast cancer is often treated like something only older women get... but if you go to any breast cancer walk and look at the photos of the women in their 20's, and sometimes younger, carried by family and friends in support... you realize cancer doesn't know age.

    A friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer at 24. She is active and vital and a brilliant young woman. That image, like you point out is so important to women with cancer and survivors as well... regardless of her age.

    She started her own organization, check it out when you can.