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Someone recently asked me two questions that really struck me: Is there a difference between the reality of the breast cancer world and the way it is perceived? What advice would you give an outsider who is trying to help a friend get through breast cancer?
Oddly enough, these are the two most obvious questions I think someone might ask, but I never really thought to answer them. Is the breast cancer world different than the bright pink t-shirts and bows plastered across television screens and billboards? How do you help a friend battle breast cancer when you have absolutely no idea what they are going through? The answers might not be quite what you expect.
Answer 1: No. The breast cancer world that is painted, or rather spattered with pink, is not that way at all. In fact, a lot of survivors hate the color because of what it stands for. For them, pink represents a disease. It represents chemotherapy, hair loss, anger, fear, resentment, and pain blundering its way through every cell of the body. Pink is the color assigned to the worst time of these women’s lives.
Being the daughter of a survivor and not actually having been through cancer myself, I can’t quite understand where my mother is coming from when she refuses to wear a pink shirt, however, I do understand why she does not want to be defined by her past experiences with the disease. The experience of cancer is as dark as the spot on a mammogram. There is a stigma associated with it that a lot of survivors and families try to avoid. I don’t want my family to be defined by it. We are too talented, too diverse, and too wonderful to be thought of as “that family whose mom had cancer.” My mother is the strongest woman I know. I consider her to be the reincarnation of Wonder Woman. She is brilliant, amazing, and more driven than anyone I know. She is too special to be defined as a cancer patient. Breast cancer made my family stronger. It was an adventure, a challenge, and a blessing. It did not define us, but made our original definitions a little longer.
Answer 2: To help a friend get through cancer, you can’t try to pretend you understand because you don’t. I know that sounds awful but it is one of the best pieces of advice I can offer. I had no idea what my mother was going through, just as my friends had no idea what I was going through. When you have a family member battling cancer it feels as though you are the only ones in the world going through it. The last thing you want is for someone to tell you they understand. What the patient and family needs is someone to listen, someone to cry to, someone to hear them sob, someone to laugh with them, someone to sit in silence with, and someone to just be there. Don’t try to be anything but you, because you are the most normal thing in their lives and just being there will save them.
Cancer is scary. It’s not hot pink. It’s not something other people understand. It is a battle that requires an army, and ours was made of friends that turned out to be guardian angels. Cancer is the greatest battle anyone can ever fight, and it is worth every second of it.