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October: The Power of Pink, The Power of Community

Each October I honor my grandmother, a breast cancer survivor, by re-posting this 2006 column.  She was, and will always be, an inspiration and a guiding force in my life. CAM

 

 

The Home Planet: Community potent weapon against breast cancer

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Staff writer
Oct 30., 2006

 

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. I’m sure you’ve noticed – next to the orange and black Halloween and harvest decorations – the pink ribbons, pink tools, pink kitchen gadgets, all being sold guaranteeing part of the profit will go to work for a cure for breast cancer.

Thanks to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, pink is the other color of October.

Now pink is the signature color of breast cancer awareness, the color of breast cancer research and, for some, the color of hope and success.

Pink is also the color of community. And that might just be one of the most powerful weapon in the arsenal against breast cancer

When I was a small child I went with my younger sister and infant brother to live with my grandparents. Our young mother was simply unable to care for us.

Two years later, in 1963, my grandmother – a woman who had just turned 50 – found a lump in her breast. After her surgery, the surgeon walked into the waiting room, put his hand on my grandfather’s shoulder and gave him the bad news. It was cancer. And it was very serious. She might not make it.

Both of my grandmother’s breasts were removed and she started her treatment. I don’t really know what was done to fight her cancer, beyond the surgery and radiation treatments, but I know she lost her hair.

During this time my brother, sister and I were aware that our grandmother was ill; I have a vague memory of her being in the hospital, of my grandfather brushing my hair, something my grandmother usually did. I remember the strangeness of finding him in the kitchen cooking hot cereal. I remember her wearing a wig.

We knew she was sick but the seriousness of her illness was never mentioned. You just didn’t talk about that kind of thing. Especially with children.

As soon as she was well enough, my grandfather went back to work and so did she. She went back to keeping house, to cooking all of our meals and caring for three young children. Back to raising a second family.

Although, when we got older, we were told that my grandmother had had breast cancer, the full impact of what she had been through didn’t hit me until much later. Until the pink campaign.

In 1990, at the first Komen National Race for the Cure in Washington, D.C., pink ribbons were worn to signify status as a breast cancer survivor. The little badge took off and became a universal symbol. The simple pink ribbons worn that day have evolved into a potent marketing tool.

Now October has gone pink. I’ll admit that when I see pink kitchen mixers, pink umbrellas and pink vacuum cleaners, each promising to donate a portion of the profits from each sale to breast cancer research, I am vaguely irritated by all the hype. Enough already, I think. I get it.

But then I think about the monumental effort behind the campaign, and the work that has been done because of it, and I think about the world my grandmother lived in and changes that have come about. There’s a lot of power in that pink.

Just 40 years ago, we didn’t talk about cancer. You especially didn’t talk about breast cancer. Women like my grandmother had no choice but to soldier on taking care of homes and families, keeping what they endured to themselves, without the benefit of therapy or counseling. There were no support groups.

My grandmother was a relatively young woman to be raising grandchildren. She didn’t have a large circle of friends. She didn’t go to clubs or meetings. She didn’t meet other mothers for lunch downtown. She didn’t even drive. She was a true stay-at-home caregiver.

She battled cancer and the permanent effects of that battle, with only my grandfather to hold her hand. And she beat the odds. Despite a poor prognosis, she lived 20 years after her surgery before the disease reappeared. But what she didn’t have access to when she was so sick, and what I have to think would have been good medicine, was the support that only other fighters and survivors can offer.

She had sympathy but no empathy. She had no one to go to and complain, or cry, or shake her fist and scream about the pain and unfairness of what had happened to her.

That is a tool that, if today I was to find myself in her place, I would reach for immediately.

The scars after my grandmother’s surgery were disfiguring. But as I get older I wonder about the scars that were hidden. The scars no one ever saw.

There were no stitches or soothing salves for those wounds. She was left to care for them on her own.

The advances in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer; the advances in the search for a cause and a cure since my grandmother’s illness in 1963, have been huge.

Now, there are television commercials and magazine ads urging women to get mammograms and to make a pledge to remind one another to do regular breast self-exams.

Now, if a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer there is a community for her.

The disease is no longer shuttered and closeted. When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer she doesn’t just have the benefit of science and medicine behind her. She has the benefit of a corporate identity; a network of support groups, literature, advocacy and caring. That community is a big advance.

October only lasts 31 days, but the power of pink can last a lifetime.

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review and is a contributing editor at Spokane Metro Magazine. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Friday Night Around the World

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)   

 

 

   On my last day in Switzerland, I walked around Zurich, visiting museums, wandering up and down cobblestoned streets window-shopping and trying to lock it all in my memory.  I strolled along the river and over bridges, people-watching, stopping to look at the sailboats on the lake. I was leaving in the morning, catching a Saturday flight and I was tired, ready to get back home and to see my family. But I didn’t want to miss a moment while I was in such a beautiful place, because Zurich is very beautiful.

    Finally, after an early dinner, I made my way back to the hotel. Back to one of those spaces Americans just don’t appreciate. We’re too used to modern boxes with uniform spaces. My room was the last room on the hallway on the seventh floor, the top floor of the building. The elevator stopped at the sixth floor and I had to carry my suitcase up one more flight. I thought how my friends would fuss and grumble about that little inconvenience, but, perversely, I liked the idea of being tucked away.


    Inside the room a double bed was tucked against the wall under a sloping ceiling and a single, tall, narrow, arched window opened up to a splendid view of the city.  It was a storybook place, like something from a movie or one of the romantic novels I’d read as a girl. I propped my suitcase in the corner and crossed over to open the window, grateful for the cool breeze that filled the room, making the curtains dance.


    I could see the tower on the Uetilberg - I’d been there the day before - and all the buildings of the city spread out below me. The train station and landmark hotels were easy to identify. The lake was just out of sight. On one side was the tall spire of the cathedral. On the other a row of old attached houses curved along the street in the University district. As they do in so many European cities, many of the houses had small patios or terraces built on the narrow, flat rooftops and the owners had decorated these private spaces with potted trees and hanging plants. Where there was room, some owners had added a small table and chairs. 


    The view was so different from what I see when I am at home, I stood there a long time, soaking it all in before turning back into my room to pack.


    Just a few minutes later laughter drew me back to the window, and the sound of knives and forks on crockery and corks being pulled from wine bottles.


    When I looked this time, I noticed that all around me the skyline had come alive with movement. Men and women, college students and young couples had moved up to the roof and were silhouetted against the sunset. The day was dying but the air was  suddenly filled with the musical sound of people at ease and happy; celebrating the end of the week; just as they do in my neighborhood when people sit on the patio and fire up the grill, laughing, calling out to one another or children as they play in the back yard.


    As I watched, one by one, lights came on in the houses around me and windows glowed like golden gems in the deepening twilight. It was nothing special but it was, at that moment, extraordinarily beautiful.


    That’s the thing about travel. You can cross oceans and continents, time zones and cultural divides, but ultimately, in the most ordinary, unexpected ways, like the universal sounds of people relaxing on a Friday night, you discover not just the ways we are different, but the simple and striking ways we are all alike.

    
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

A circle of friends and writers

(photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

 

    Most Monday nights we gather together
    We open the door of the small building that houses the studio of an artist friend and walk into the warmth of a room filled with the all the tools and spirit of creativity.
    There is a kind of homecoming each time we meet. Someone might bring a loaf of fresh bread. Someone else puts cheese and crackers on a plate. On a good night a bottle of wine is opened and shared.
    For the first half-hour we talk. We talk about what has happened since we last met. Catching up with marriages, work and all the other portions of our lives, we strengthen the ties that bind us together. And then, when it’s time, we get to work.
    One by one, safe in the company of kindred spirits, we read the words put down on paper since we last met.
    We are a circle of writers.  Some of us do it professionally, others are more casual. But the one thing in common is that each one of us writes because something inside us won’t rest until we do. Each of us has a story to tell and we want tell it in our own way.
    There is, deep in the center of most people, a strong desire to leave something behind. We want to leave our story. A map to who we were. A chronicle of the things we dreamed and worked for; of the loves we shared and the heartaches we survived.
    In the Monday writing studio we are in turn, survivors, lovers, mothers, wives and sisters. And what we share - besides the bread and wine - is the determination to overcome the barriers of shyness, insecurity, fractured schedules and even, occasionally, the interference of others. We want to write and we’re willing to go to great lengths to find a way to do it.
    Most Monday nights there is a reason not to go to the studio. There is  work to finish before deadline. There is housework. There are family responsibilities that pull at us. But usually, unless we’re out of town, we make it. We open the door to the writer within us. One word, one Monday, at a time.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Breast Cancer: The Power of Pink.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. In 2006 I wrote the following column to honor my grandmother who was born in October and died in the same month 70 years later. This is her story. I’d like to share it again this year:

October 30, 2006

The Home Planet: Community potent weapon against breast cancer

 

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. I’m sure you’ve noticed – next to the orange and black Halloween and harvest decorations – the pink ribbons, pink tools, pink kitchen gadgets, all being sold guaranteeing part of the profit will go to work for a cure for breast cancer.

Thanks to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, pink is the other color of October.

Now pink is the signature color of breast cancer awareness, the color of breast cancer research and, for some, the color of hope and success.

Pink is also the color of community. And that might just be one of the most powerful weapon in the arsenal against breast cancer

When I was a small child I went with my younger sister and infant brother to live with my grandparents. Our young mother was simply unable to care for us.

Two years later, in 1963, my grandmother – a woman who had just turned 50 – found a lump in her breast. After her surgery, the surgeon walked into the waiting room, put his hand on my grandfather’s shoulder and gave him the bad news. It was cancer. And it was very serious. She might not make it.

Both of my grandmother’s breasts were removed and she started her treatment. I don’t really know what was done to fight her cancer, beyond the surgery and radiation treatments, but I know she lost her hair.

During this time my brother, sister and I were aware that our grandmother was ill; I have a vague memory of her being in the hospital, of my grandfather brushing my hair, something my grandmother usually did. I remember the strangeness of finding him in the kitchen cooking hot cereal. I remember her wearing a wig.

We knew she was sick but the seriousness of her illness was never mentioned. You just didn’t talk about that kind of thing. Especially with children.

As soon as she was well enough, my grandfather went back to work and so did she. She went back to keeping house, to cooking all of our meals and caring for three young children. Back to raising a second family.

Although, when we got older, we were told that my grandmother had had breast cancer, the full impact of what she had been through didn’t hit me until much later. Until the pink campaign.

In 1990, at the first Komen National Race for the Cure in Washington, D.C., pink ribbons were worn to signify status as a breast cancer survivor. The little badge took off and became a universal symbol. The simple pink ribbons worn that day have evolved into a potent marketing tool.

Now October has gone pink. I’ll admit that when I see pink kitchen mixers, pink umbrellas and pink vacuum cleaners, each promising to donate a portion of the profits from each sale to breast cancer research, I am vaguely irritated by all the hype. Enough already, I think. I get it.

But then I think about the monumental effort behind the campaign, and the work that has been done because of it, and I think about the world my grandmother lived in and changes that have come about. There’s a lot of power in that pink.

Just 40 years ago, we didn’t talk about cancer. You especially didn’t talk about breast cancer. Women like my grandmother had no choice but to soldier on taking care of homes and families, keeping what they endured to themselves, without the benefit of therapy or counseling. There were no support groups.

My grandmother was a relatively young woman to be raising grandchildren. She didn’t have a large circle of friends. She didn’t go to clubs or meetings. She didn’t meet other mothers for lunch downtown. She didn’t even drive. She was a true stay-at-home caregiver.

She battled cancer and the permanent effects of that battle, with only my grandfather to hold her hand. And she beat the odds. Despite a poor prognosis, she lived 20 years after her surgery before the disease reappeared. But what she didn’t have access to when she was so sick, and what I have to think would have been good medicine, was the support that only other fighters and survivors can offer.

She had sympathy but no empathy. She had no one to go to and complain, or cry, or shake her fist and scream about the pain and unfairness of what had happened to her.

That is a tool that, if today I was to find myself in her place, I would reach for immediately.

The scars after my grandmother’s surgery were disfiguring. But as I get older I wonder about the scars that were hidden. The scars no one ever saw.

There were no stitches or soothing salves for those wounds. She was left to care for them on her own.

The advances in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer; the advances in the search for a cause and a cure since my grandmother’s illness in 1963, have been huge.

Now, there are television commercials and magazine ads urging women to get mammograms and to make a pledge to remind one another to do regular breast self-exams.

Now, if a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer there is a community for her.

The disease is no longer shuttered and closeted. When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer she doesn’t just have the benefit of science and medicine behind her. She has the benefit of a corporate identity; a network of support groups, literature, advocacy and caring. That community is a big advance.

October only lasts 31 days, but the power of pink can last a lifetime.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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