After Surviving Inflammatory Breast Cancer, I'm Taking Back October

by Martha Van Dam
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October has always been my favorite month of the year. I love the warm colors and delicious smells and harvest flavors and the crisp coolness that appears in the air. I love football and mountain hikes and boots and comfortable sweaters. So, right in the midst of those things that I love, in October of 2016, came the rash on my breast and the resulting inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) diagnosis.

I will never forget sitting in the diagnostic imaging office, after I had found the rash, and seeing that huge floor-to-ceiling banner advertising breast cancer awareness. Even then I wondered if that was a little like singing to the choir. Is it likely that anyone who is undergoing a mammogram, ultrasound or breast MRI is thinking about anything BUT breast cancer?

Anyway, that October, two weeks after a glorious mountain trip to hike among the fall leaves with my love, came my entrance into the world of IBC, “Pinktober,” and breast cancer awareness. Yeah, I was aware, all right. So aware and so scared that I couldn’t even imagine if I would have a future life. Another autumn wasn’t even on the radar.

Fast forward to October 2018. We are inundated with pink everywhere. I’ve already received one message reminding me to be aware of breast cancer. “Oh that? I’d forgotten (insert eye roll).” I’ll be honest, I’m a little bothered that all this pink stuff tries to take over October. I mean, pink doesn’t even go with fall colors. And being reminded of the miserable fears that go with our diagnosis is the absolute opposite of the feelings I want to have.

I want to enjoy fall like I used to. So, I want you to know that I’m taking October back. Football players can wear pink cleats if they want to, but my house is already decked out in gold and orange and brown and green. There are enough pumpkins, sunflowers and cotton stalks to make my living room look like a farmer’s market. And yes, I’ve already bought and eaten a box of pumpkin spice Cheerios. I’ve exchanged the summer candles for fall ones and the scents are beginning to waft through the house.

I’m writing this to encourage you, my IBC sisters. I don’t get mad like I used to, but I do feel pretty strongly about something: IBC has taken a lot from me (and you). It destroyed a perfectly good breast and changed my shape forever. It left me with no eyebrows and thin hair. It diminished my strength and stamina. It left me with a constant shadow that whispers the possibility of return and the threat of ending my life … and I’m sure we could both add a gazillion more things it has taken.

This is my point: it’s taken ENOUGH. It can’t have my October! I can’t control the fact that it invaded my life and body, but damn it, I can be sure it doesn’t steal my October.

As we are surrounded by reminders this next month, I challenge and encourage you to receive each reminder as coming from someone who would like to rid the world of cancer and who cares for us. See it, be thankful for the heart that sent it, then turn your focus to something that is special to you.

We have recently lost too many IBC sisters, too many precious moms, wives, grandmothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, and friends. Each one wanted to be present to treasure this fall season (among so many other things). So we honor them by treasuring each moment and not taking the time they wanted to be here for granted. We honor then by accepting what we have lost but focusing on what we still have, no matter how limited that is.

For my sisters who are in the throes of treatment and sickness, some of you may be so sick right now that you can’t even imagine enjoying the fall season — and I get that. Please don’t feel left out. Please continue to hope and look forward to better days. Two years ago, I was convinced my life was over. I was so, so wrong and I’m hoping, with you, for the day that you are up and active again.

Please glance around as the season changes and take pleasure in the beauty. If you are up to it, do something that brings you pleasure. If you are stuck in bed, ask someone to bring you something that will brighten your room. The decision to enjoy the season is a decision to treasure life. And as long as I am treasuring my life, cancer doesn’t win.

For more information about inflammatory breast cancer, please go to