Three Pink Octobers

Our culture rains pink all over October to draw attention to breast cancer and pump up research funding. But the pinkness can overwhelm when October is your favorite month and breast cancer seems anything but bright and cheery.

I have always loved October, with its promise of sweater weather and apple cider, and for its amazing ability to ignite foliage into flame. I had never really considered pink to be a part of October’s color palette, and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I became painfully aware of the commanding presence that pink held in my favorite month of the year.

It was July when I received the diagnosis of invasive breast cancer at the age of 29. As an oncology nurse myself, I could hardly believe this unexpected collision of my personal and professional lives. Dutifully, I began attending consultations for surgery, genetic testing, fertility preservation and chemotherapy, wading through life-altering decisions in a shell-shocked fog. In anticipation of losing my hair, I shaved my head and learned how to fashionably tie scarves at my nape. I psyched myself up for losing my breasts after the difficult decision to proceed with a double mastectomy. And yet, somehow, denial kept me floating above reality.

But if I had not yet fully comprehended what it meant to have breast cancer, October would bring me to a rude awakening. I was deep in the trenches of treatment when products and public service announcements began to bombard me. Pink socks, towels, blankets and key chains. Pink coffee mugs, headbands, mittens and pencil cases. Pink on NFL uniforms. Pink-dyed water fountains. Pink spotlights on buildings. A billboard on the freeway displaying smiling women’s faces, whose mammograms, I could only presume, had NOT led to a diagnosis of breast cancer. And as I sat on hold with the breast care clinic, a friendly recorded voice on the other end of the line reminded me that mammograms save lives. Stop! I felt like screaming, I’m aware, I’m AWARE!

I was the bald cancer patient waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store, awkwardly ignoring the aisle display of pink cancer paraphernalia next to me. I imagined kicking down every single shelf loaded with pink crap and then running in the other direction, which immediately made me feel like a Bad Breast Cancer Patient and a Bad Oncology Nurse. Was I supposed to be embracing this spotlight? Was I supposed to appreciate this? I put my hairless head down and did my best to ignore all things pink, and eventually October slipped into a much less threatening November dreariness.

One year later, I had just completed my fifth and final cancer surgery. My body was recovering from all that it had gone through in the past year, but instead of feeling the relief and elation that I thought I should, I found myself in a state of mourning. My navigation back to normal was failing miserably, and I was beginning to realize that there really wasn’t a “back to” anywhere. I didn’t trust my body anymore, and was fearful of the never-ending uncertainly that cancer had inserted into my life. I wanted so badly to just move on, forge ahead and forget.

But it was September, which meant that October was right around the corner. A trickle of pink soon turned to a river, infiltrating the cracks and crevices of the protective shell I’d been trying to build around myself. Here we go again, I thought. I couldn’t so much as sneeze without getting a token of Breast Cancer Awareness shoved in my face (pink Kleenex boxes, for goodness sake!). Everything that I had been trying desperately to distance myself from was being paraded around in public, and the u-rah-rah rhetoric that surrounded it made my head hurt. Breast cancer, I fumed, was NOT pink!

My cancer was the color of the slate-green glow of my breast turned inside out on the ultrasound screen. It was the color of the clinic’s rich honey-hued double doors whisking open to usher me into the world of chemotherapy. It was the rage-colored crimson of doxorubicin being pushed through my IV, swirling with saline and cascading downstream into the deep red river of my blood.

My cancer was the color of yellow pills, and brown pills, and green ones and blue. It was the color of those ugly rust-tinted plastic bottles that contained them, and the canary yellow warning labels on their sides. It was the color of the tired, dusty teal of any number of oversized hospital gowns I inhabited, opening in front, their geometric patterns faded by the wear of others’ bodies.

It was the muddy olive of my husband’s eyes, saying goodbye as I was being wheeled out of the pre-op area and toward the OR in a haze of benzodiazepines and tears. It was the midnight blue of my surgeon’s pen on the white canvas of my chest, and the emerald green of his sterile gloves cutting away the tissue that betrayed me. It was the mint OR scrubs and blaze white coats of resident doctors asking to see where my breasts used to be, asking to see the purple trenches of my scars.

Nowhere, nowhere, I insisted, was there room for pink in my cancer experience. Pink was pretty and friendly, fun and carefree. Cancer was none of these things. Breast Cancer Awareness Month was ripping the healing scab right off my cancer wound. I was tired. I was angry. I was anything but pink.

Over the next year, as scar tissue replaced my open wounds and I began to have more good days than bad, it appeared as though cancer’s leaden sky was lifting. I could finally see beyond the edge of the storm I’d been caught in for the last two years, and slowly, little slivers of pink began to break through the clouds. I placed a pink Young Survival Coalition sticker on my car. I added a small pink ribbon pin to my name badge at work. I sported an unapologetically pink tank top for a run in support of research for breast and ovarian cancers in young women. Pink had crept its way into my cancer color palette.

This October has been the third since my diagnosis, and I was prepared for some mixed emotions. I continue to struggle with defining what pink means to me, and what place it has in my survivorship. I want a voice that honors all of the women before me, including my grandmother, who’ve died from this disease. I want to stand in solidarity with the women I meet at my job as an oncology nurse: women facing cancers of ALL kinds, sitting in the same exact chemo chairs that I did; women I laugh and cry with every day in the face of this disease. If pink can help me heal, then it deserves a place in my life.

Before cancer, October was about football games, pumpkin carving and leaves crunching underfoot. Now, as a survivor, I am realizing that I will never be able to untangle my favorite month from the fury that defines Breast Cancer Awareness. But I’m starting to understand that PINKtober, once a threat to me, now brings an opportunity to celebrate the joy and triumph that can be found in the face of cancer, as well as a chance to acknowledge its burden of grief and loss. I am beginning to take pride in what I’ve been through and how far I have come. I am recognizing positive changes I’ve seen in myself since my diagnosis. And I’m learning to lean into life again.

I still can’t say that breast cancer is pink, but maybe pink is part of the rainbow after the storm.

Marloe Esch is an oncology nurse with Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Clinical Cancer Center.

‘Three Pink Octobers’ appears in Milwaukee Health, a special issue from Milwaukee Magazine.

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