Why October is the hardest month of the year for me

I don’t often visit the American Airlines website, but I’ve logged on enough times to know that it is usually swathed in red, white, and blue. Today, though, when I visited the site for work, the typically patriotic color scheme was taken over by a wash of Pepto-Bismol pink. Initially, a banner showed three smiling, kind-eyed airline employees in varying quantities of pink attire, imploring me to “Be Supportive, Be Pink.” A few seconds later, the image swooshed away, replaced by an ad for Bonus Miles, leaving just an awkward pink box and requesting my login information.

“Damn it,” I thought. “It’s October.”

October-as-Breast-Cancer-Awareness-Month is, in essence, an uplifting and well-meaning tradition. That it has grown in the past decade or so from a mere fundraising campaign into a full-blown holiday is, in theory, a great thing, as it means more money for cancer research, more hearts warmed, more cancer fighters and survivors buoyed. This exponential growth has its dark side too —each year we hear more laments about the corporatization of medical research funding, or about the greedy evils of the Susan G. Komen foundation —but that’s not why I was cursing at my computer screen.

Every October, when the Pink Tide rises, my inner demons rise, too.

When I was 15, and she was 48, my mom died of breast cancer. She died four months after she’d been diagnosed, and perhaps six months after doctors at one of the world’s finest research hospitals had stared, confused, at the bruise-like stripe down her left breast. They were confused because her regular mammograms showed no tumors. We’d ultimately learn that it was Inflammatory Breast Cancer, a rare form of the disease where the cancer inflames the tissues instead of creating a lump. This was 16 years ago, 1998 —but still, a lot was known in the medical community about breast cancer. None of that knowledge could save my mom, and no amount of ribbon-stamped goods and services can bring her back.

Should that matter? Isn’t it selfish of me to begrudge cancer patients the opportunity for a cure, and cold-hearted to resent a practice that supports current sufferers? Yes. It’s awful. It’s a shameful, miserly, way to feel, a brooding victim’s mentality. And all month long, I’m ashamed of myself at every turn.

This is the crux of my beef with the Month of Pink. It’s not that the money isn’t going to the right places (though I wish more of the proceeds from all the stuff — pink spatulas and KitchenAid mixers at Bloomingdales, pink scarves and mugs at Caribou Coffee — went directly to researchers). It’s not that, after all this time, we still don’t have a cure (although that sucks, to say the least). It’s not even the dull fear that my mother’s illness makes it more likely that a cancer diagnosis looms darkly in my future (also horrible). It’s that all this “awareness” makes me all too aware of both the gaping chasm that exists where my mother should be and the anger that lies below my grief. It’s an anger atypical to my normally warm and wise and loving heart, a cynicism and selfishness that gets unearthed annually. I know that the positive, we-can-beat-this attitude of the countless pink magazine spreads, survivor walks, and even that website landing page (“Be Supportive, Be Pink”) is emblematic of the fact that a positive outlook is essential to beating any kind of cancer. But I can’t help it; I see in those smiling faces the fact that my mom was a trooper until the end and it didn’t save her. My absolute and unflinching belief that she was going to beat the disease couldn’t protect her, either, and may have even made the thundering blow of her loss resonate that much harder. It resonates every Oct 1, this year the day after she would have turned 65, and as I try and write my way through the injustice of loss.

What I’m writing here is not a plea for cultural change. I don’t know if we need Breast Cancer Awareness month. I don’t know if we need more pink stuff filling up our closets and junk drawers. I don’t know if there is a person alive who isn’t “aware” of breast cancer. But there’s certainly nothing wrong with being supportive, and there’s something commendable about any phenomenon that encourages people to think about disease prevention, support friends or family battling disease, or simply to feel hopeful about their own struggles with it. No, if there’s anything I’d like to change, it’s within. I’d like to feel less resentful of survivors. I’d like to hurt less, especially after all this time. I’d like for my mother’s memory to be purely a source of light and comfort, instead of feeling abandoned with no one to blame. Maybe that’s what October can be about for me from now on. It could be a time of healing, of remembrance. I can try, at least. No pink required.

Marissa Flaxbart received her Bachelor’s Degree in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Chicago and an MFA in Screenwriting from Chapman University. She is the creator of Sweet Valley Diaries and a cofounder of Chicago Ladies in Comedy  a not-for-profit supporting funny women. In high-school, she performed the “I’m So Excited” scene from Saved by the Bell as a one-woman show, on demand, at a frequency of no more than once per month. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

Image via Shutterstock

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