I walked in my first Race for the Cure in Dallas in 1996.
By then, my hair was growing back dark and a little wavy after chemo. I met my new friends, fellow breast cancer survivors, and we walked together. We wore Komen T-shirts and hats and plastered ourselves with signs about other friends — either “in honor of” or “in memory of.”
At the end of the race, we gathered close to North Park Mall. (Malls and shopping are important in Dallas. I knew a woman whose mother was buried in an adjacent cemetery, overlooking North Park Mall and its big Neiman-Marcus store. Neiman’s had always been her mother’s favorite place in the world, my friend said, and she was sure her mother rested happily there.)
That day was beautiful and cloudless and inspiring. It happened at that time, early in my cancer survivorship, when I found safety and power in the sheer numbers of other survivors. Together, sweaty and enthusiastic and loud, we were tough and strong and gutsy. It would take more than a malignant bunch of rogue terrorist cells to defeat us.
I didn’t appreciate, then, how wily and relentless cancer was, how it positioned itself like a sharpshooter on the nearby cemetery hill, picking off this survivor, then another, then another. How it turned the “in honor of” tributes into “in memory of,” how so many parade bystanders became participants in later years. There was no safety in our numbers — just the illusion of safety.
Instead, I watched the stage as a group of survivors in pink caps danced and sang to “I Can See Clearly Now” — a song I would never listen to again in quite the same way. One woman, in cap and T-shirt, sang looking up at the blue sky with tears streaming down her cheeks.
A few years passed and we moved to Austin. The only Race for the Cure march I walked in must have been in ’98 or ’99. I went with my friend, Martha, whose cancer was temporarily in remission, and my daughter, who was in high school then.
Along the way, my daughter spoke to another girl from her high school. The girl’s mother had also had breast cancer, my daughter said. I asked how she was doing and my daughter muttered something in a low voice I couldn’t hear. Later, I asked again about her friend’s mother and she told me the mother had died.
More years passed. Martha died, as did most of the other members of my support group. But Komen flourished, spreading pink ribbons everywhere, from professional football teams’ uniforms to the lapels of millions of jackets to cosmetics, perfumes, big buttons. Every October, I came to feel, promised a national outbreak of ribbons, big smiles and determined mass perkiness.
Some of my survivor friends — like Cancer Bitch — loathed Komen for its corporate ties, relentless branding and failure to focus on cancer prevention. I was more guardedly neutral, but disliked the foundation’s simplistic insistence that early detection would always save lives. In the meantime, treatments improved somewhat and more women were diagnosed with early stages of cancer that might never threaten their lives. But 40,000 women a year still died from breast cancer in this country, as marches grew larger and millions of dollars flowed into research.
You know the rest of the story. Komen withdrew its funding of mammograms at Planned Parenthood earlier this week. Then, after a firestorm of controversy, it backed down and reinstated funding. This is a foundation that recognizes a PR and financial debacle when it happens.
So, we’re back to the status quo — except we’re not. Because of right-wing politics, an organization dedicated to women’s health was willing to ignore the needs of poor women, until it became too uncomfortable to continue.
You can’t forget something you know, can you? It’s like a cancer diagnosis, marking you forever. It’s like hearing “I Can See Clearly Now” in a different way and never being able to go back to your original interpretation.
Speaking for myself, I’ve marched in my last Komen march and given the group my last dime. I can see clearly now and I’m not about to forget.
(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)
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