Summary Dr. Cécile Bour, November 15, 2021
About an article published on October 15 in The New York Times by Holly Burns, a San Francisco area writer who was diagnosed with breast cancer 4 years ago.
Holly Burns shares her experience, which is similar to that of other cancer "survivors," and which remains poorly expressed during the annual Pink October: "October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and I am a person who’s had breast cancer, which means for me October is basically 31 days of low-key PTSD.”
Pink October as a trigger for an "anniversary reaction"
Kathleen Ashton, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Breast Center in Ohio, also testifies in the article, "Some do enjoy the opportunity to raise awareness, but the majority of my patients find the month distressing."
For some patients and former patients, the month of Pink October acts as a red flag that is waved and brings everything to the surface, with the procession of trauma that has often accompanied the patient's journey, from the announcement to the treatment.
Deborah Serani, a psychologist and professor at Adelphi University in New York, explains that anxiety at a particular time may be triggered because of a phenomenon known as the "anniversary effect" or "anniversary reaction," a unique set of thoughts or feelings that arise around the anniversary of a significantly traumatic experience.
Thus, explains the psychologist, anything that reminds us of the traumatic event experienced can provoke this "anniversary reaction".
A gap between marketing and real life
This month can be particularly difficult for those whose cancer is progressive and has progressed. "It can feel like only the happy stories are presented," testifies a 40-year-old woman, Emma Fisher, with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
"It's hard to see campaigns where "everyone is laughing and smiling and having bake sales and doing fun runs," she says. "It makes me feel invisible, it's almost like metastatic patients are this dirty little secret in the breast cancer world, because nobody wants to portray breast cancer as a killer."
In the book IM-PATIENTE, Maëlle, the young woman with advanced cancer who testifies, says something similar: "the hospital is decorated in pink for a month, all the nice grannies knit their little pink squares, and we make a pretty ribbon around the hospital, well, okay. Sure. But during Pink October, what stories are we talking about? We always tell the same stories. We talk about these warriors who started their enterprise while undergoing chemo and who have three children after their surgery.
It's always the same story. Have we ever heard during Pink October about women having metastatic cancer? I don't think so. Because it's not pretty, it's not glamorous, we don't talk about it. that's unacceptable." (June 2018)
Bri Majsiak, co-founder of a non-profit organization for people affected by breast and gynecological cancers, says, "Breast cancer lasts 365 days a year, not 31."
How do you get through the month of October with peace of mind?
Psychologist Dr. Ashton (Cleveland Clinic Breast Center in Ohio) advises women affected by breast cancer to limit exposure to things they might experience as upsetting, which can mean taking a break from social media, unsubscribing from as many marketing emails as you can, not being afraid to set boundaries with loved ones who don't understand why ex-patients and patients might find this month very painful to live with, or sharing with other women who may be feeling the same way.
While friends and family may assume this is a month of celebration for survivors, they "need to understand that a serious personal illness like breast cancer is a traumatic experience," Dr. Serani said.
A Charleston psychotherapist, Ms. Ilderton, also advises against making the survivor you know a 'case study,' she whose friend emailed a group using her as an example of why a mammogram was a must.
Bri Masiak advises that for those who wish to support Pink October, they should look carefully at where the proceeds go and consider whether it would be better to donate to a more focused local organization, or one that is helpful to women during their treatment, for example.
Indeed, the destiny of the funds collected is often very opaque, the marketing budget can represent an important part, and the part really devoted "to the cause" is not known by the donors. The stated purpose of the fundraising is often "research".
But....what research? Do we wonder which studies have really been financed, what are the results, what are the concrete advances for women while we have been running for decades and yet breast cancer still kills, and this since the 90s, 11,000 to 12,000 women/year? This leaves us wondering about the real impact of these costly campaigns.
During this great annual pink barnum, not very useful and in reality not very informative for women, we should at least be aware that it can be a vector of distress and painful memories for some of us.
We hope that future Octobers will be less pink, more discreet and less festive, more educational and more interactive with all women, the healthy ones, the survivors and the heavily affected ones, for a better information on breast cancer, in a neutral and objective way.