Five Lessons You Won't Learn From Breast Cancer

Breast cancer survivors

Breast cancer survivors bring the pink to Capitol Hill. Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

It's supposed to be a life-altering experience. But what if that epiphany never comes? Did you miss some crucial part of the so-called journey? Or, worse, are you just not that reflective? Author Shelley Lewis explains how a diagnosis of breast cancer didn't exactly change her life.

"I felt like death sent me a postcard that said, 'Thinking of you,' " says Lewis, author of Five Lessons I Didn't Learn From Breast Cancer (And One Big One I Did).

With a diagnosis of early term breast cancer in hand, Lewis says she signed up for a chat group. But after the first meeting, she says it felt more like a ghost story competition than something helpful or supportive. It was scary and draining — and that reaction made her feel awful.

"Something's wrong with me?" she thought. She visited the chat group again, and once again, she hated it. She says this is when she started rebelling against what she calls the breast cancer industrial complex.

Think Before You Pink

"I didn't want people telling me, 'Fight the good fight, be a good warrior,' " Lewis says, so it was no more meetings for her. But then she says she also began to find the color pink nauseating. Well, not exactly the hue.

"I don't have a problem with the color pink," Lewis says. "It's Pink Incorporated that I'm not excited about."

If the giant industry of pink-colored products and promotions is what helps get certain women and their families through the night, that's great, Lewis says. But she'd like to see the breast cancer movement begin to look beyond the pink ribbons.

"Do you have to buy a pink Dirt Devil?" Lewis asks. Instead, she imagines people giving directly to the breast cancer cause they support, rather than needing the lure of pink products to donate money.

Feeling Assaulted by the Positive-Thinking Police

Lewis also has unkind words for the overwhelming cheerfulness of breast cancer's self-help legions. "What the attitude police want to do is give you a piece of advice, whether you asked for it or not," Lewis says. If you just fight the good fight, they told her, you'll be OK. "The other side of that coin is, did you cause your own cancer? Is it your own fault?"

She says she discovered buried under the smiles and hugs a blame-the-victim mentality that surfaced when she didn't hew to the relentlessly positive dogma. "People should understand that it's OK to have cranky cancer days," Lewis says. "It won't make you sicker."

Lewis not only wants to make room for women to be angry at breast cancer — she wants them to feel free to be exactly who they are. "The lesson for me is that cancer doesn't change who you are," Lewis says. "You are the person you think you are. Your values and your life lessons will get you through it. A situation like that really distills what's important to you."

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