You’ve no doubt heard the term awareness with regard to a number of topics: trans fats, mental illness, pollutants in the water and air, body fat, smoking, the decline of the honeybee. Awareness is something we’re always trying to raise. So many issues to be aware of, too many voices clamoring for the same audience. Impossible to keep up.
The term cancer awareness attempts to make the general, unafflicted public more aware of cancer — its causes and risk factors, the effect it has on society. A recent article even pins down the cost of cancer in hard numbers: nearly a trillion dollars lost in the worldwide economy from premature death and disability due to cancer. With this sort of news, how could anyone not be aware of the impact of cancer?
My own awareness, though, is now of a different sort.
A little more than a year ago, I was made painfully aware of cancer, something I didn’t think would ever come to visit me. And now that I’m past the intense treatment, muddling along with my new hair in the stream of “survivorship,” I’m able to forget, for long periods of time, that cancer indeed plays a role in my life. (That’s the damndest thing about cancer. Even if it never comes back, it still owns part of you because you can never be sure.)
But then, during the course of an average day, I am once again made aware.
I’ve noticed now a habit of misreading words, a subliminal prompting perhaps. On the computer screen, I read the button on a page that says cancel and momentarily see cancer. In looking through the stack of folders on my desk, I come across the one labeled — what’s that? — cancer? No, no. That’s Career written on that tab. Maybe I just need reading glasses.
On a recent trip east with my family, we went to an amusement park to ride the roller coasters. Standing behind me in the line for the Blue Streak was a woman wearing that telltale baseball cap, frail wisps of hair sticking out, and a black T-shirt with one of the current trendy slogans for people affected by breast cancer: “I love boobs. Let’s save them all,” enhanced by that ubiquitous pink ribbon.
Now I hate the use of that term to refer to breasts. Really, do we want to be calling our body parts by derogatory names? But I admired the woman’s courage, and rejoiced in being back in the line for the Blue Streak myself, a year after my own ride on the cancer roller coaster began.
Until the moment I caught sight of the woman, though, I had been thinking about how hot it was and wondering how my son would tolerate the ride this year. Now that I have hair, anyone who didn’t know my story would never guess what I’ve been doing all year. I thought for a moment about speaking to the woman, but found myself in the quandary that others have likely found themselves in with me. Do I intrude into her thoughts, introduce myself and commiserate with her? Or do I let her have her privacy? There were those who intruded unpleasantly into my space, but I also remember the woman in the red coat who spoke to me of hope and whose message lifted me up. If I spoke to this woman, which role would I play for her?
I’ve become aware, but still lack awareness.
Later in the trip, while mindlessly reading the Sunday paper, I came across a review of Promise Me, a book by Nancy Brinker, the sister of Susan Komen and the one who established the famous foundation. And there it was again between the Living section and the comics, another moment when cancer intruded and made me aware.
And then again when we traveled on to Washington, D.C. There I was contemplating airplanes while standing in the crowd at the Air and Space Museum and suddenly I saw four people with T-shirts bearing pink ribbons, promoting various races for the Cure. (Some race, huh? President Nixon declared war on cancer back in 1971. Maybe the length of this race explains why there are now more walks for the Cure. It‘s hard to keep a race going for 40 years, even with relays.)
And finally, on our flight back home, I glanced up from my seat to see a woman settling into the seat directly in front of mine. Full make-up and earrings. A head covered with stubble, indicating a recent shave. I sat there remembering how that stubble gets rubbed off pretty quickly.
How could I be sure the woman was being treated for cancer and not just flaunting a lifestyle choice? The flight attendant was extra solicitous, bringing her for free one of those snack boxes they now make you pay for. Once again, I wondered whether to speak but chose not to, suddenly understanding my own hesitance. By initiating a conversation, I would drag myself back into the pit that I’ve been managing to get out of for good lengths of time.
Instead, I became more aware of the man sitting next to me, who downed four of those small bottles of whiskey with his Coke during the course of the flight. I can only guess what particular awareness he was trying to obliterate.
If you really want to get total awareness of cancer and its impact, tune into any of the major TV networks on September 10 to watch Stand Up To Cancer (8 p.m. EST). You can find out more about the program here.