My friend David recently sent me an excellent article* written by Barbara Ehrenreich in 2001. In it she bemoans the tyranny of all things Pink. Barbara Ehrenreich is the brilliant mind behind the book Nickel and Dimed, and has spent decades questioning and critiquing and debunking the norms of our society. She helps us to see from new angles. Specifically the article Welcome to Cancerland articulates how stupid and objectifying and damaging pink washing can be. By writing it she has helped to carve a channel, a canyon through cancerland helping us to better understand our otherwise vague sense of wrongness around how our experience is portrayed and marketed.
This is good, and not so good. Ehrenreich is not a fan of positive thinking, to put it mildly. She was raised by depressive alcoholics, and has spent her life as an atheist intellectual. While she offers an alternative to pink washing, I see that she also is supporting a false dichotomy. That dichotomy is to be either; brainlessly pink or brain-fully pissed.
On one side we have the Pink Corset; that sets out an idea on how we SHOULD be feeling -namely perky, positive and ready to spend money on pink things in support of the cause. On the other end of the dichotomy we have the Rage Corset; In which we SHOULD be outraged. Cancer sucks, and I’ll be damned if I will smear a pink sugar coating on it.
Both of these “corsets” can be unnaturally confining, and I am not convinced that being wedged into either one is beneficial, anymore than a Victorian corset enhanced health. While it is true that the pink washing is another example of the corporate elite leveraging, and manipulating to take the unfair advantage, many people take comfort in being united by its pink machinations. The breast cancer awareness behemoth has provided some with a means of building a new identity, and finding kinship. For one thing it has made it possible for people to say the word Breast out loud. Just like a secret handshake or VFW pin can help fraternal society members identify each other, pink is a password.
For others there is a lot of anger and rage to process. I get that. Actually if you are not processing anger on a regular basis, you are probably not paying attention. Cancer is an epidemic because of the environmental toxins produced by some of the same corporations that are doing the pink washing. There is a lot to be angry about: pipeline builders who fail to understand what sovereign and sacred mean, perpetrators of police brutality and racist incarceration vs the incarceration of racists, fracking profiteers who are poisoning the land and water, rape culture, those who are clear cutting our forests – spraying poison on the clearcut lands and then shipping the stripped logs to China. I could keep on listing the things that require us to unite and speak out, getting a cancer diagnosis is just the icing on the cake. By holding on to anger we are refusing to condone the behaviors and actions that are killing all of us by a death of a thousand cuts. Aligning with the brain-fully pissed camp, is to align with the long history of those who have resisted injustice – from the abolitionists to the Suffragettes. Just as Pink works for some, Rage serves others.
However holding on to anger is exhausting. While I acknowledge that anger is something our culture tries to squelch in women, and that it is not healthy at all to stuff your anger, I suspect it is potentially counter productive for me as a means of addressing something which ultimately is me. So I don’t like the outrage corset much either.
“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”
Sharing pinkness or sharing anger are both strategies to connect. To understand. There are many others strategies to finding understanding and connection. There is a vast field beyond right and wrong as Rumi articulated. To respond to the end of apartheid in South Africa by setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Tribunals** the South Africans gifted the world with hope and wonder. It is an example of finding a new way outside the corsets offered by convention. Just as they sought a different road away from more violence and vengeance, I think there are other ways to integrate our cancering experience than pink or pissed.
So what have I learned from cancering?
What cancering has been for me is a serious wake up call. Even in my chemo brain state of persistently diminished brain power I am smart enough to pay heed to it. But what does that mean? So far it entails practicing being more present, and trying to become less self centered. Though I would say treatments necessitate that anyone contract down to being very self centered for a while. It means many things, including being humbled, and freed. Of growing up enough to take care of myself.
Have I learned lessons? God Yes, Thank God. I mean what are we here for if not to learn lessons? I hope I never stop learning. I hope I never stop looking for things to be grateful for. I hope I continue to grow and change until I die. It seems clear to me that we are infinite beings simultaneously existing within our human limitations. We are wondrous, powerful, beautiful and most of all we are quite literally love. That is the infinite being part. Our human limitations? Well that is where we get to play with being selfish, blind, intolerant, judgmental, greedy… Hopefully by the end we remember that we are infinite beings and choose to be love amplifiers even from the position of our human limitations. That is the game as I understand it.
I have written about the portals*** we walk through before- the privilege of experiences that carve our life up into something like the Grand Canyon. As we are washed with the water flowing through our life we sometime meet another person who has had a similar experience, or has similar passions. We might instantly feel a spark. “Ah you too have been carved by this water.” This is not to say that we have actually had the same experience. I have found that I have no more in common with others who have or are actively cancering than I have in common with the general populace. I certainly can not speak for anyone else. But there is always the possibility for that spark of shared truth to flare between any of us. I might read the words of someone long dead and feel kinship. I might share meaningful eye contact with a stranger, and be changed. We live our lives in relation to each other. We need connection as much as we need food and water. When we are set adrift by a traumatic experience, we naturally reach out to find others that understand.
I have struggled quite a bit with how to come to terms with these two corsets and how I fit into the whole continuum. I have worried that by talking about my pursuit of happiness it would be interpreted as a slam of those who are unhappy. I have worried that by seeking to understand why I was granted the pCR, I would in some way be seen as judging, even blaming those who are not doing so well. I am motivated to understand what if anything I may have done might contribute to my current state of health. By looking at and identifying those things perhaps it can help others to heal, if not be cured. I wonder this even while I feel that there is great mystery. We can never know completely why some move on to metastatic disease, and others don’t.
(Healing is not the same as Curing, by the way – that however is a post for another day.)
When I talk about positivity and how cultivating a disciplined habit towards happiness is healing, I am not talking about making that choice at the expense of paying attention to the injustices of the world. I am not talking about sugar coating sh*t and feeding it to people. What I am saying is that people are inherently valuable, inherently creative and that we have soul. We are always directly connected to the sacred, and each other. Sometimes this is obscured, often by intense emotions, but like the blue sky above the clouds our oneness is always there. This is not something I learned from cancer, it is something I began to suspect as a very small child. So when I started cancering treatments it was a tool I applied.
Since I do not partake in any news reporting from the mainstream media, nor social media, my “Positive” attitude is not a side effect of being coerced by the peer pressure of positive pink norms. I certainly would never reduce it down to “The protective effect of having a good attitude for the fight.” In fact I call total bullsh*t on that, while simultaneously I also KNOW that our minds have great power. And sometimes, rarely, that is enough to cure someone.
There is paradox within the mystery. The reality of cancering and everything else is far too immense to fit into any constraints. That field out beyond right doing and wrong doing is vast beyond imagining. We bring all of our baggage and preconceived notions to the Cancerland playing field. These notions might make it difficult to interpret how another person is negotiating their situation. Whether pink makes you feel strong, or just pisses you off, there might be other options. Like Isadora Duncan abandoning the corset to dance wildly in the surf, or South Africans courageously forgiving without forgetting we can forge new ways forward without squishing our innards.
*You can read the 2001 Barbara Ehrenreich article, Welcome to Cancerland, here:
**South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission website:
***Here is my post on Portals: