As A Breast Cancer Survivor, Pink Ribbons Give Me Serious Anxiety

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

On October 1st, I posted my first of many pics and videos on the importance of doing self breast exams. The comments poured in. I received many questions, a lot of heart emojis, and private messages. Women want to tell their stories and share their concerns, and I receive them with open arms. I’m more than happy to point them to resources to help them.

I was 35 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had no family history, my genetic tests for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes were negative, and I didn’t have any of the typical risk factors. My out-of-the-blue diagnosis resulted in me facing a tough decision: I could have a lumpectomy and endure radiation, or I could opt for a mastectomy. I chose the mastectomy.

It’s been over three years since I went from being a breast cancer patient to a breast cancer survivor, but I’m still triggered by seeing pink ribbons, especially in October.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time when many of us who are survivors, along with medical professionals and organization leaders, implore women to do their self breast exams, know their medical history, and get their mammogram. Breast cancer doesn’t care how old you are, how much money you make, if and where you went to college, how many kids you have, or how full your schedule is. Breast cancer shows up when it damn well pleases, and yes, it’s traumatic.

Much of my breast cancer journey is a blur, and I only remember pieces of it because of pictures and medical documents. From the moment I found my breast lump during a self breast exam until two years after my mastectomy, I faced one traumatic tidal wave after the next. I believe I became numb from the many people in white coats standing above me and saying the word “cancer” on repeat. Every needle prick, every exam, every lab result, and every appointment on my schedule left me jaded, confused, and angry. My one question was, why me?

The realty is, why not me? One in eight women will face breast cancer in her lifetime. Despite all the reasons why I shouldn’t have had cancer, breast cancer chose me. I fought the good fight, but I was left traumatized and exhausted. Being strong and fighting like a girl is beyond draining. Cancer takes a toll on a person physically, but also emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

With a lot of therapy, research, and post-traumatic growth, I’m emerging from the fog. However, those damned pink ribbons can send me into a tailspin of anxiety every time I see one. I could be driving, and the person at the stoplight in front of me has a pink ribbon on her license plate. I see people proudly wearing their pink ribbon tees from a 5K they participated in. There are moving pink ribbons everywhere.

Then there are the products. Pink ribbons are slapped on cereal boxes, Halloween candy, bags of chips, and almost every other flat surface. Our local café has offered pink ribbon bagels—like, what?—in past years. If you just buy their product, they’ll donate 10% to breast cancer research. I am triggered by this, certainly. How will buying fruit snacks for my kids actually help others? I’m a skeptic, I admit.

I am thankful for the awareness and support, but I’m not happy about the reminders. I can’t go anywhere in October without flashing back to a cancer memory or two. It might be the plastic surgeon using permanent marker on my breasts to indicate what she’d be doing during surgery. It could be the times I had to venture to see my oncologist where we discussed, yet again, the numerous side effects I was having from the post-cancer drug I was prescribed. Or it could be the weeks I spent in bed, fluid filling the surgical drains that snaked from my chest.

It’s certainly no one’s fault that I had cancer or that it would inevitably leave physical and emotional scars. Pink ribbons are the symbol of awareness and fighting the breast cancer battle. However, they are inescapable, smattered everywhere, calling my name. They haunt me. I wish they didn’t exist, because I wish breast cancer didn’t exist.

When someone has cancer, there’s no just getting over it or moving on. It’s just not that easy. Surviving breast cancer is like putting a handprint in wet concrete. Once the print dries, it’s there for the long haul. Long after my cancer cells were gone, the memories of what happened, and also what didn’t happen, remain.

I am very thankful to be a survivor, but my journey was anything but a temporary hurdle. I am proud to have won the fight and I consider it an honor to be here telling other women to check their breasts, advocate for themselves, and get their medical exams every year. But I get to tell my story on my terms. Pink ribbon sightings are an unwelcome surprise. Those of us living with trauma from cancer don’t like surprises.

In October, I often wear my pink t-shirt, with a pink ribbon over each of my (revamped) breasts. I want to make a statement, bringing attention to the number one cancer women face. I’m grateful to say that I survived breast cancer, but I hope one day there are no more pink ribbons.

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