“Better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.” — Chinese Proverb
Our world is awash in pink this month — pink merchandise, pink newspaper pages, little pink ribbons are everywhere, on everything.
“Think Pink” is the theme for October because it is the official breast cancer awareness month and, while I’m all for a cure for breast cancer, I’m not sure I’m a fan of using it as a marketing tool.
It seems a little crass to me — like the reality that breast cancer kills women and effects hundreds of thousands of lives each year fades into the background when what we’re focused on is buying things that have pink ribbons on them in an effort to show we care.
Please, don’t get me wrong. I’ve never had cancer, so I can’t pretend to understand how people whose lives have been touched by it, in any form, think or feel when the topic of “cancer awareness” comes up. I’m only talking my version of the talk because I’ve never walked their version of the walk. From my perspective, though, no one should profit from the exploitation of the merchandise marketing power of an illness – any illness.
I have a friend who is dying of ovarian cancer. It has metastasized throughout her body and she does not have long to live. She is younger than me, has a long-time husband and a daughter who has just started college. I can’t imagine what they’re going through… I met Joanne at the hospital, where we worked together for years. She is a strong person, opinionated, talented, never afraid to speak her mind. She has a loud laugh, a dry sense of humor and a very tender heart. She’s the kind of person you could exchange terse words with in one situation and then find yourself laughing with and hugging her a short while later. And, as devoted as she was to her work, her devotion to her family, especially her daughter, is clearly greater.
Her daughter was a talented dancer, actress and singer in high school and Joanne was always proud of her accomplishments. And, as tenuous as a career in show business might be as a goal, Joanne’s daughter is now well on the way to making it a reality, I’m sure in part because of Joanne’s strong belief in her talents and support of her dream.
It took the cancer a long time to knock Joanne back and she fought and kept fighting a difficult fight. At work, when she was still well enough to work, she was always brave, strong and upbeat, laughing loudly about her recent hair loss or surprisingly curly hair re-growth or whatever sign of the battle had most recently appeared. When the cancer got to the point that conventional treatments were no longer effective, she went out of state for experimental trials. And, no matter what the latest news was — and, it was often not good — she never stopped smiling, laughing and being brave.
I stopped by to see her in the hospital last week and there she was, the same Joanne — joking about how hard it was to get her hospital gown snapped correctly, laughing, smiling and asking me about my life. It broke my heart. How can I think I have problems when this strong, delightful, tough, tough woman with so much still ahead of her is attending “end of life” classes and getting ready for yet another round of chemo?
I felt small, sad, humbled and inspired sitting across from her as she perched on the edge of the bed and talked about how much she’s looking forward to her daughter’s Christmas visit. I so wanted to do something, to help in some way — but how? Anything I had to offer seemed insignificant in the face of the challenges Joanne faced.
Then, it came to me; I could offer her a photo session. She hates pictures of herself and I hate pictures of myself; we have that in common. I wasn’t sure if she’d go for the idea, but I offered anyway and she surprised me by immediately saying, “Yes.” It’s not that a photo session is a big deal; it’s not. It’s just something I could personally offer.
We all want to be part of something big, something good - something like finding a cure for cancer; and there’s all kinds of cancer. Just because Joanne’s cancer doesn’t have a color or a month or big merchandising campaign behind it, doesn’t mean she can’t use a show of support, even if there’s no little ribbons involved.
It’s easy to go out and buy things. It’s not so easy to look around, see someone who’s struggling and ask yourself what tangible thing can I offer?
Maybe it’s a ride to a medical appointment or an offer to clean the house. Maybe it’s making food or doing a load of wash or cutting the grass. Is there something they’ve always wanted to do, but never got the chance? Is there a way to make that happen?
My bet is reaching out will feel better than whipping out that debit card; let’s try it and see.
Lorin Sinn-Clark is an award-winning writer for the Barrow Journal. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.