Twenty-one years ago, I started working on my new status -- that of being a survivor of breast cancer. Having lost my mother, first cousin and aunt to the disease, I left no stone unturned. I researched and chose very aggressive treatment. I went organic, detoxified my system, did meditation, saw an alternative practitioner, took cups of supplements including very expensive twigs from Chinatown, left a stressful work environment, left a relationship that was more pain than gain, and moved. I got rid of my microwave for years, stopped using shampoos with certain chemicals, did news fasts and didn't even read things that were "negative." I volunteered to teach English to immigrants and donated my services to the cause. I basically turned my life upside down and started over. I was just too young to die.
I was also on a causal rampage. This included going back to that farm in Minnesota where I was raised and where my mother became sick to find that indeed DDT had been part of the land and water near the time we lived there. As an innocent child, I had ridden my horse among rows of corn still wet from pesticides and fertilizer, being sure to "wash my hands before dinner." Never mind my bare legs, arms, face and lungs.
We had no idea.
But why then are my three sisters fine? Why did my cousin who was raised in California succumb? Why did my aunt in North Dakota who had never lived anywhere else lose her battle? DNA. Could it be that? Or a matter of co-factors and toxic load. Maybe, just maybe, it's a deadly recipe yet to be deciphered.
Thoughts like these have kept me awake countless hours in the deep, suffocating nights of winter.
So when I see the celebratory acts crammed into the month of October, I can only watch in silence. How does anyone dare claim credit for being here? I've lost seven fellow warriors to date and not one of them "did anything wrong" though given how little knowledge we really have, blamed themselves anyway. That's another trouble with these pink festivities. For every proud walker and marcher and pink shirt wearer, there are legions of silent, worried, guilt-laden "survivors" in the closet, waiting for the second shoe to drop.
This is not meant to show a shred of lack of gratitude. I wake up every morning filled with appreciation that not only I am still here, but that everything works, and nothing hurts. This is merely voicing feelings you are not likely to see in the blazing ribbon campaigns. This is meant to give thoughtful pause to the commercialization of a very serious, private situation surrounding you.
That woman next to you on the bus, or at the gym or church may not have told you that she is afraid. She is afraid that celebrating survivorship somehow implies failure when one doesn't survive and she, like myself, needs to know that you'll register this on some level. That you'll think about how far we have yet to go in understanding what is happening on a global scale that is taking far more women each year than we lose in any war.
I wish I knew why I'm still here so I could share that and save others. But I'm left to ponder in the dark along with the rest of us.
Mary Katzke is a filmmaker and writer. She lives in Anchorage.