What Color Is Your Breast Cancer?

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It's probably not pink. 

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Two of the most iconic buildings in the world, the White House and Buckingham Palace, have already been bathed in pink, along with other landmarks taking their place in the pantheon of interests who want to declare they care about breast cancer. You've probably noticed, it's Breast Cancer Awareness month. A time when the world is reminded that breast cancer happens and that if we "think pink" we will be doing a service in the cause, making people aware of a deadly disease that strikes one in eight women. The lush and lovely orange and red landscape of fall is interrupted every October by what appears to be an ejection of Pepto-Bismol pink across our consciousness.

Two years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The extent to which we bathe in October pink hits me even harder now, and not in a good way. Teddy bears, t-shirts, iPad covers, bras, water bottles, bags, and other made-in-China tchotchkes abound -- slap a pink ribbon on it and feel good about yourself because you remembered breast cancer.

I'm someone who has always resisted "Awareness Month" campaign strategies. To start, it's a little demeaning to imply that remembering, say, black history in February, absolves us of thinking about it all the time. Awareness months also feel like they've become marketing and promotional tools for a whole range of interests that run the gamut from the serious to the surreal. Did you know that October is also Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Auto Battery Safety month and National Squirrel Awareness month?

Having visited the world of breast cancer, I can tell you it is many colors. Breast cancer is black as the hole you fall in when you are first given the diagnosis. The blackness wraps around you as if it is going to suffocate you, and there's no way out. Breast cancer is that particularly wan color of fluorescent lights, which seemed to be the lighting of choice in all the doctor offices I visited. Not white, but not yellow either. An unnatural tinge that makes you look sick whether you have had a life altering diagnosis or not. Breast cancer is bland beige, the color of a lot of doctor offices -- the sterile surroundings in which you find yourself spending so much time. It is that particular shade of the blue gowns you have to don as you prepare to be prodded and poked and manhandled by a legion of medical professionals. A paint maker might call that blue aqua or skylark or allure, I call it institutional blue. Breast cancer is as grey and heavy as a thunder cloud laden with a downpour, it hangs over you just as ominously.

The breast cancer awareness movement has been one of the great health awareness campaigns of the modern era. There is no doubt that I and women like me have benefited tremendously from the hard work of women before us who put breast cancer on the map. Mortality rates are down precisely because of early diagnosis and treatment. But, 40,000 women a year still die from breast cancer. And for the rest of us, the treatment is no pink, fuzzy walk in the park.

I think we've outgrown breast cancer awareness month. Having gone through it I can tell you that what helped me wasn't the NFL clad in pink, the grocery items adorned with pink packaging, or any other made-to-order-assuage-your-guilt-pink-something. What helped me was real, tangible support. 

Here's what you can do for someone in your life who has breast cancer. Do the grocery shopping. If they have kids, take care of them for an afternoon. Do they need help getting to the doctor? Cook a meal for the family. Breast cancer isn't just pink. It's many colors, and it happens 12 months of the year. These small acts of kindness will be remembered long after the pink t-shirt or teddy bear finds itself at the bottom of your closet.

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Madhulika Sikka is executive producer of NPR’s Morning Edition. She is also author of the forthcoming book A Breast Cancer Alphabet.

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