Saturday, May 2, 2009

Breast Cancer Awareness: Why I Don't Walk for Color-Coded Cures

I woke up this morning to Michael Jackson tunes floating through my open window. I like the King of Pop, but not enough to be awakened by him; that said, I was somewhat thankful because I needed to haul to the Post Office to get a money order with which to pay my rent. And yes, I pay my rent with money orders. Every single month.

The source of the public nuisance Michael Jackson beats was a massive motorcycle outfitted with a boombox, parked on the sidewalk outside the Cleveland Park Library. Its presumed owner/driver stood on the street corner in a bright orange crossing guard-style vest, cheering wildly in the direction of a group of approximately 25 women all clad in pink workout gear.

You got it: The Avon Walk for Breast Cancer.

And while most passersby were smiling, nodding in approval, honking in appreciation, I... I got angry. It was the most unexpected reaction I think I've ever had to cancer advocacy/fundraising/awareness, & in many ways, I was ashamed of it. So ashamed that I considered refraining from writing this post. But I think it's important - so I'm still writing.

It wasn't just the MJ beats that peeved me, though I wanted to shake that motorcycle man & ask to see the permit that gave him the go-ahead to wake me & all my neighbors with "The Way You Make Me Feel." It's safe to say that I'm going to grow into an old woman who shoos children off her lawn with a shotgun. But this is all beside the point.

Do you know what the survival rate for breast cancer is? Over a five-year period, the survival rate is 89.1%. That's a pretty darn high rate. And I'm certainly not saying this to disrespect or negate the trauma & suffering & pain that breast cancer patients go through - it's a horrible, painful disease, & watching someone you love suffer through it is just as painful as watching someone you love suffer a cancer with a lower survival rate. When it comes to suffering, cancer knows no divisions between types or kinds or variations - it all hurts just the same to watch and, I'd imagine, to experience.

But that's my next point. Do you know what the survival rate is for, say, lung cancer? Over the same time period, the overall survival rate for lung cancer, not taking into account sex, race or age, is a mere 15.6%. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the country - but when was the last time you saw someone on a lung cancer walk? What color has been designated to bring awareness to lung cancer?

Full disclosure: My dad died of lung cancer when I was 10 years old. I was 10, you know, so I thought he was getting better; what does a 10-year-old know about cancer? When I was in high school, I wrote letters to friends & family who helped me raise nearly $1,000 in my dad's memory for Relay For Life. On the day of the walk, I lit candles in memory of my dad, but also in memory of my grandpa, who died of leukemia, my grandpa who died of colon cancer, & my grandma & my mom's former boss who both died of breast cancer. Since then, I've lit candles in honor of other friends & family members who have the great, God-granted fortune of being survivors rather than victims. And in 2005, I joined the brothers of Lambda Chi Alpha & more than 300 others in a campus-wide fundraiser that collected money for the Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center, breaking a world record in the process.

Despite all this, I am terrified of cancer, & none of these actions have done a thing to relieve me of my fear. Still, I understand that, for some, there is a sense of empowerment that must come with acting in the name of a loved one & feeling that your money, your footsteps, or the pink-ribboned teddy bear you just purchased are directly aiding the eradication of a disease that has launched a personal attack on your life. But why aren't we fighting cancer as a whole? This breakdown of cancer into smaller, digestible categories - or, actually, ONE digestible side project, breast cancer awareness - allows us to feel that we're contributing to fighting the overall problem when all we're doing is fighting a small portion, while by & large ignoring the rest. Can we truly call ourselves anti-cancer advocates if we're only anti-cancer advocates when we like the color of the race-day t-shirt?

"Walking for a cure" is great, & I'm all for it. And while I certainly understand individuals' relating most closely to the specific cancer than has affected them, I'm concerned that too many people fail to see the bigger picture. Just because you lace up your Nikes & tack a sign on your back that says "I'm walking for my mom" doesn't mean you've done a damn thing for your mom or the people like her, except contribute some cash to a really well-done marketing campaign. While you raise all kinds of money for a cancer that is, by many accounts, survivable, where is the money coming from to do research on the cancers that don't fall so easily into marketable, color-coded niches? Cancer is cancer, & I'm not buying into the "Some cancers are more cure-worthy than others" shtick that Avon walks & Susan G. Komen's pink frying pans push on me. If I'm going to walk for cancer, I'm going to walk for ALL of them - and I wish others would consider doing the same.
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