It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month (Again)

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM for the social media-savvy among us). It’s hard not to notice it.

“It’s #pinktober!” declares one Instagram post. Another website reminds us it’s National Mammography Day, which falls on the third Friday of October. Everywhere you look, there are virtual fundraising events, images of bright pink ribbons, and stories about battling breast cancer.

I know these efforts are meant to encourage women to be proactive about their health, and to help educate people about breast cancer detection and treatment. But for those who’ve already been impacted by breast cancer, whether personally or through a loved one’s diagnosis, all the reminders feel unnecessary and sometimes unnerving. For us, breast cancer isn’t something you can choose to think about only one month out of the year.

As I learned after my mother was diagnosed in 1998, awareness of breast cancer becomes a constant companion, whether you invited it along for the ride or not. Because of my family history, I’ve been on the high-risk surveillance track for a long time. I started getting mammograms in my mid-thirties (the current recommendation for women of average risk is to begin at age 50). I had my first breast MRI when I turned 40. By the time October rolls around each year, the last thing I need is a reminder to get a mammogram.

Those screenings are my own personal version of purgatory. I hate the itchy gowns they make you change into, the poker-faced radiologists, and the little lounge where you sit awaiting your fate. On the wall-mounted television, mindless reality shows play on a loop, but no one is really paying attention. There is nothing to do but cross your fingers, hoping you’ll get the all-clear.

October will always be a fraught month for me, but last year it took on more significance. I happened to have my usual mammogram scheduled toward the end of the month, on October 19. That test revealed a suspicious area, so I had another mammogram, but it was inconclusive. So on Halloween, I found myself back in that blasted imaging suite, my “sus” breast sandwiched between cold metal plates as a radiologist poked a needle into the area of question.

The next day, I learned officially that I had breast cancer. After all those years, I finally heard the words I’d known were coming.

My cancer was detected early – so early that I had a few different options for treating it. I chose surgery, which took place a few weeks before Christmas. Since I couldn’t lift my arms for several weeks afterward, my oldest daughter even became my personal hairstylist for a while (I wrote about that, and many other things, here).

Over a year after that mammogram, I’m glad it’s October 2023, not October 2022. Yet I’ll never relish this month, with its gaudy, in-your-face reminders of a disease I wish I could forget. I’ve already ruminated about breast cancer enough for several lifetimes’ worth of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

But trying to suppress the thoughts is pointless. It’s like trying not to think of a purple elephant. So instead, I’ll attempt radical acceptance. That means I accept and allow the thoughts and worries to be there – but I try to focus on other, more pleasant distractions.

If you’re reading this, and you’re in a similar boat and counting the days until the end of October, I see you. And I have some suggestions for passing the time with a little less angst and a bit more joy.

  • Go for a walk, run, or drive while listening to your favorite podcast and admiring the fall colors.
  • Browse the Sephora sale.
  • Watch a show you find comforting (mine is Heartstopper, and Seasons 1 and 2 are equally lovely.).
  • Clean or repair something in your home (my personal favorite is snaking the shower drains. It’s weirdly satisfying.).
  • Reach out to someone who understands what you’re feeling (I volunteer with ABCD: After Breast Cancer Diagnosis, which ensures anyone affected by breast cancer can call anytime and be matched with a professionally trained peer Mentor for free, 1:1 emotional support. I had two Mentors. They get it. ♥)

As my mom always said, “This too shall pass.” Wishing all of us a peaceful autumn.

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