You can buy temporary tattoos for your breasts, one saying “Think,” the other “Pink.” The NFL’s online shop has a pink-and-gray Cleveland Browns cap and other merchandise with pink color schemes. There are special pink zebra-striped scarves, kosher soy candles promising part of their proceeds go to cancer research, and “pretty in pink” nail polish in three varieties: You Are Not Alone, Be Brave and Embrace.
Breast cancer awareness is not just about the ribbons anymore. October is a month of pink-think, and marketing emails for breast cancer-linked products are almost constant. Beacon Journal features editor Lynne Sherwin not only collects the releases announcing sundry products but has observed that some publicists now refer just to BCA.
Which, as she also notes, takes both the breast and the cancer out of the discussion.
Still, we are awash in PDAs for BCA. And — however well-intentioned the distributors and wearers may be — the marketing threatens to stain the need for treatment and research about breast cancer with celebrations of the tasteless and the silly. And if you don’t think that’s possible, think again about those tattoos I mentioned.
“I think when it gets too cute, and too pink, it’s a little much,” said Betty Rollin, breast-cancer survivor and author of the 1976 memoir First, You Cry.
“But who am I to say?” she continued. “If it helps people, if it helps quiet their fear, if it helps them get some money to the cause, I’m not going to criticize it. Even if it gets a little gross sometimes.”
Still, Rollin is amazed by how much people now talk about breast cancer, including in October. She was not allowed to use the words breast or cancer in the title of her book. Contrast that with Geralyn Lucas’ 2001 book, Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy.
“Today, sometimes I feel, well, who hasn’t had breast cancer?” Rollin said in a recent telephone interview from her New York City home. “It’s sort of become no big deal. That’s not only because everybody who has it, talks about it. It’s because of the merchandising, it’s because of the pink stuff, and it’s because there has been so much progress in treating the disease, that so many of us live — far more than there used to be. I mean, that’s a major fact in all of this. It’s not considered a death sentence. It is for some people, clearly. But mostly not. So the attention paid to it is enormous. It’s been fascinating to watch this over the years.”
Those years included not only the removal of Rollin’s left breast after her 1975 diagnosis, but the removal of her right breast in 1984 — still long before the pink ribbons. Those date back just to 1991, when the Susan G. Komen New York City Race for the Cure handed them out to breast cancer survivors. And, less than 20 years before that, breast cancer was more a matter of whispers than proclamations at football games.
Barron Lerner, author of The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America, points to 1974 as “the turning point for breast cancer awareness in the United States.” And the ’70s as a whole offered a wave of more open discussion of the disease. Former child star Shirley Temple Black went public with her diagnosis in 1973; first lady Betty Ford and politician Nelson Rockefeller’s wife Happy talked about their experiences the following year; Rollin’s book was not only a best-seller, it was adapted for a 1978 TV-movie with Mary Tyler Moore as Rollin.
Now 77, Rollin still works as a journalist and is active in Death With Dignity efforts; her book Last Wish, which also became a TV movie, deals with her terminally ill mother’s suicide, which Rollins aided. But she still talks about breast cancer, too, and in our interview recalled how different the world was when she first told her cancer story.
“When I got breast cancer,” she said, “I was 39. I certainly didn’t know anyone else who had had it, except that I had heard about Betty Ford … and she had spoken up about it, and that was considered very brave. … It was a time when, if you got cancer, you hid it. You did not talk about it. It was considered scary. It was considered something you died from. And so people who got it didn’t want people to think they were going to die. If they had jobs, for instance, they didn’t dare tell. …
“I felt so alone,” she said. “So that made it all the scarier, and the creepier, and the sadder for me, that I felt just completely like a freak for getting this disease.”
After her mastectomy, she struggled with her appearance and, as she wrote, entered “the land of phony breasts.” She left her husband. She had an affair. She looked at the news about Ford, Rockefeller and other celebrity breast-cancer survivors, and heard a colleague tell her she had “this year’s chic disease.” She was at times, by her own admission, out of control — but, as a writer, sensed an opportunity.
“On the one hand, I was going through this thing,” she said in our interview. “On the other hand: material. I felt I would use this.” Hence the book, though it was not an immediate sale. “I had written a chapter and an outline, and it was good, and nobody wanted to touch it,” she said.
The idea was still unsettling to some; I remember a newspaper owner around this time [but not in Akron] who banned stories on breast cancer because the ones about Ford and Rockefeller had supposedly upset his wife. An editor at a smaller company finally took Rollins on, albeit with the rules about title words.
The book proved a sensation: direct, frank — and funny. In fact, Rollin has remained funny when talking about cancer. In a 25th-anniversary edition of her book, the long-remarried writer says, “Cancer improved my taste in men.” She told me that, when giving talks about cancer, “Sometimes I’ve felt all I have to do is show up and breathe.”
“People were shocked that I was so honest, and funny,” she said in our interview. “I wasn’t trying to shock anybody. I was trying to be a good professional, and write an honest book.” Then the letters came in telling her that she had helped the readers get through their own cancer, people saying — as Rollin had felt — “I thought I was alone.”
“I began to feel rather undeserving of all this,” she said. “I didn’t set out to make anybody feel better. I just set out to get a good piece of work out of what happened to me.”
In time, Rollin heard from people she knew who were, in fact, dealing with breast cancer. “I comforted them,” she said, “and they comforted me. … It turned out I wasn’t the only one.”
Rich Heldenfels lost his first wife to breast cancer in 1989. He writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles, and is on Facebook and Twitter, You can reach him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.