In defence of the girlification of breast cancer

23 Oct

I used to sneer at all those silly Facebook posts about the colour of your bra, or about moving to x country for y amount of time. After buying a pink Filofax when I was 19 because I liked it and thinking ‘oh well, if it supports cancer research, then even better’, I quickly got fed up with pink ribbons, pink pens, pink KFC buckets?!, pink everything. I was on the side of those people who said those status updates don’t teach people to check their breasts and notice changes, pink things turn cancer into a gender-essentialist consumerist affair.

But yesterday someone from my year at school died of cancer. I didn’t know her well at all, we were part of the same group of 13-or-so girls who hung around together at lunchtime, and I probably talked to her twice in my life because I was intimidated by how pretty, popular, funny and nice she was. In the last couple of years she became a veritable celebrity in our small city because of her fight against cancer. She was involved in all kinds of charity events: attending Race for Life, charity fashion shows and coffee mornings, one year she helped raise tens of thousands of pounds for Cancer Research UK, and she was chosen to carry the Olympic torch for part of its route through the city this summer. The local paper frequently featured stories about her, most recently about her ‘bucket list’, which saw offers pouring in allowing her to try out all kinds of exciting things. An article in the paper was also how I found out her cancer had spread to several places, and through our shared friends’ Facebook posts I learned that she sadly passed away yesterday.

People talk about ‘battling’ cancer, and that is what she did. She seemed to have dedicated the last four years of her life to raising awareness and funds, and coping with her treatment, as well as trying to stay the positive person she was known to be. In the end, there was nothing anyone could do to help her, but I’m pretty certain that her friends rallying around her and helping her with all these events must have made a difference to her.

There is no doubt that cancer is an awful disease, and I can’t claim to have any idea what it’s like to have to live life with that diagnosis. Buying pink stuff won’t make anyone better, but looking down on people who do won’t change anything either. If surrounding themselves with pink stuff and stereotypical girly things helps people to get through the day, week or month, then that is ok.  When I was 20, I spent some time in hospital, and after the first time I was admitted I went out and bought myself the pinkest, fluffiest dressing gown I could find because it seemed to make the grey world of hospitals slightly less oppressive and alienating. Perhaps having cancer or being close to someone who does makes people seek out the opposite of what they are going through, and perhaps that is bright pink stuff and fashion shows because nothing can counteract the terror of knowing you haven’t got much time left on earth.

I hope my former schoolmate enjoyed all those experiences afforded to her. It feels very strange to know she’s not around anymore.

(I won’t go out and buy masses of pink stuff, but I am slightly reassured that by breastfeeding my daughter for more than two years I am helping to reduce both her and my risk of breast cancer.)


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