Just Walk Away

June 10, 2013

Last Friday Salon posted a piece about  Susan G. Komen canceling seven of the 3-Day walks it had slated for 2014. Komen blamed “economic uncertainty and competition from other charities” but neither Salon’s writer nor its readers are so easily duped.

After all, Komen’s news of declining participation comes after years of missteps, including partnering with Kentucky Fried Chicken to sell pink buckets “for the cure” and attempting to cut off funding for breast cancer screenings and services provided by Planned Parenthood.

Finally, women are saying enough is enough.

What took everybody so long to see through Komen?

Oh yeah, women’s magazines chose to shield ad revenues rather than reveal troublesome problems with breast cancer walks. Let me explain my frustration. In 2003, I pitched an investigative feature about the financial fiasco behind Avon’s breast cancer walks to Health Magazine. The editors loved the idea and assigned me  a 2,200-word feature. I was ecstatic. It was my first in-depth feature for a national magazine. It was a topic I cared deeply about. It was my dream assignment.

I spent weeks reporting the story. I interviewed all the top muckety mucks. I collected reams of data. I made Mary read and reread the piece for coherence and flow. When my deadline came I hit the send button with a feeling of pride. A feeling that this article was going to make a difference. That I had written something smart, something interesting, something that women would want to read.

I got no response from my editor. Zero. Zip. Nada. A month went by. Still nothing. A sense of dread took root in my stomach. I somehow managed to send professional-sounding emails that relayed my concern but not my panic.

Six weeks later my editor called to tell me Health signed on to sponsor an Avon breast cancer walk in Birmingham, Alabama. The magazine killed the story. My stomach dropped.  I tried to place the story elsewhere to no avail.

Fast forward to last weekend. I read Salon’s coverage about the decline in popularity of breast cancer walks. I flashed to my long-forgotten story. Thanks to the beauty of Macs, a quick search brought up the story. I reread it, dusted it off, and pasted it below. Because it never benefited from an editor’s red pen, it’s a bit rough around the edges. But I’m still proud of it. And I’m still out here trying to shed a light on the stuff no one likes to publish.

Breast Cancer Walks Equal Big Business

Kate Kelly is not an angry person.

Friends describe the 46-year-old as light-hearted, loving and generous, someone who prides herself on giving to charities in her hometown of Republic, Missouri.

But mention the words charity and event in the same sentence and Kelly’s bright-green eyes narrow with suspicion. “I was naïve,” she says in reference to her first (and last), multi-day charity walk. “From now on I’ll look at those events with a jaundiced eye.”

Kelly’s saga began in January 2001 when a bulging envelope from a college friend in Colorado landed in her mailbox. Folded up inside was a full-page ad from The Denver Post announcing an upcoming Avon Breast Cancer 3-day walk. On top was a handwritten note. Her friend, always the social planner, was gathering a group to take part in the event, and wanting Kelly to sign on. Read the rest of this entry »

What The Cluck?

April 27, 2010

Holy crap. I thought pink marketing had hit rock bottom, but cause marketers have one-upped themselves with a new pinkwashing campaign linking Kentucky Fried Chicken to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

KFC’s campaign, called Buckets for the Cure, donates 50 cents to the Komen Foundation for every pink bucket “purchased by restaurant operators” between April 5th and May 30th, 2010. In an effort to raise $8 million in six weeks, according to Komen’s web site, “The lids of these special pink buckets will have a call to action to get involved. Names of breast cancer survivors and those who have lost their battle with breast cancer will be listed on the sides of the bucket.”

The same bucket that packs up to 2,400 calories and 160 grams of fat. Hello? Does anyone at Komen care that obesity causes breast cancer? Or are they too busy selling us out to the lowest bidder? Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up. The web site comes complete with a rotating pink bucket of fried chicken plastered with thumbnail-sized pictures of breast cancer survivors. Click on the picture to find out more about these poor saps being manipulated by the marketing geniuses at KFC.

I borrowed my blog headline from the clever folks at Breast Cancer Action who’ve skewered breast cancer marketers for years with their “think before you pink” campaign. The non-profit’s web site notes that Buckets for the Cure is “especially egregious because KFC, like most fast food chains, is overwhelmingly present in communities that have poor health outcomes.”  Click here to visit Breast Cancer Action’s web site and send KFC and Susan G. Komen an email telling them where they can stuff their bucket.

Something About Mary

February 14, 2010

I know it’s cliché to wax poetic about one’s lover on Valentine’s day but I don’t care. I’m seizing the day—every last gooey, sugary, chocolate-covered drop of it—to blog about Mary.

Like good lesbians, we met in San Francisco’s Mission district. She was gathering herself for the leap to grad school in San Diego. I was working at Sunset Magazine. Strangers, we arrived simultaneously on the doorstep of a friend’s party and chatted as we waited to be buzzed inside. She didn’t know it, but I’d trailed her down Valencia Street. Her red raincoat bobbing and weaving in front of me. She exuded a sense of upbeat urgency and I caught myself wondering who she was…wondering if we were going to the same place…wondering how she walked so fast! When I finally caught up to her, in front of our shared destination on Bartlett Street, I was smitten. She didn’t know me yet she held my gaze with a warmth, openness, and authenticity I’d rarely seen. This woman had her shit together. She had nothing to hide. I was in awe. Soon, I would be in love.

That was more than eleven years ago, and, whoa Nelly, it’s been a wild ride. Like most couples, we are the yen to each other’s yang. We love each other like crazy, drive each other nuts, and spend more than our fair share of time in therapy figuring out how to ride in tandem—each motoring toward individual and shared goals with no one getting run over in the process. We’ve chipped away at some big life lessons, but my cancer diagnosis felt like skipping from 8th grade to college in “relationship school.” Every day, or so it seemed, we blew through another grade. As our intimacy deepened, layers of fears and insecurities sloughed away.

The first welcome casualty was my decade-old fear of finishing second place behind Mary’s job in the race for her affection. The minute the shit hit the fan, Mary dropped everything. And I’m not talking about the average person’s “everything.” Last winter, Mary was on the brink of tenure—a six-year-long slog toward the finish line in a cut-throat academic job that left little room for error. (And by “error” I mean taking time off to care for your partner.) Academia is a relationship killer and we were limping toward the finish line, bandaged and bruised but still together, when the C-bomb dropped. Without a moment’s hesitation, Mary put her work aside to go with me to every appointment, research treatment options, contact surgeons, answer the phone, walk the dog, run out to fill prescriptions, change my bandages, and empty my drains. And she wasn’t just a nursemaid, this woman was by my side mind, body, and spirit.

My anxiety was show stopping. Every morning, I’d wake up before dawn to ruminate about my impending death. Without fail, Mary would wake up, gather me in her arms and talk me off the ledge. She’d help me round-up my shiny new collection of cancer fears, pack them up in a box, tape down the lid, and stow them on the top shelf of my mental closet. Day after day, morning after morning, she led me out of my dark place with patience and compassion.

When I hit rock bottom, I packed up my emotional bags and checked out of my body. That escape route that was only made possible because I had Mary to lean on. And lean I did. That weekend she drove me to Louisville to see my family, sat through a 2-hour visit with an alternative practitioner without batting an eye at his bizarre treatment approach or his stratospheric rates, stood in a line (20-women-deep) for a dressing room so I could try on a pair of jeans to fit my new cancer-fit figure, and, on our way out-of-town, drove 20 minutes in the opposite direction to buy me formaldehyde-free nail polish.

Maybe, most amazingly, is that through it all, she never let me see her sweat, never let me feel like a burden, never made me feel like my mood swing, fears, and mental check-outs were anything other than 100 percent normal and acceptable. She never added her own fears to my own raucous pile. Instead, she skillfully caught each one by the tail and caged it until she could release it safely in the company of a close friend or family member.

After more than ten years of loving this woman, I am still in awe. And I am more in love than ever.


January 27, 2010

Standing on the cusp of my first cancer-versary, I’m surprised (but not) to note how much I’ve changed during the past 12 months. The most obvious and painful souvenirs of my trip to cancerland are also the most permanent—the two neat scars, like dash marks, running across my chest. The psychological shifts are harder to see.

Some days I feel like a completely different person, as if my body was hollowed out and re-stuffed. Other days I feel as though I’ve simply settled more deeply into myself, as if my psyche moved from the second floor to the basement apartment.

As cliche as it sounds, I’m less likely to sweat the small stuff (a parking ticket, a hole in my sweater, cat litter on the furniture–eww) and more likely to do annoyingly upbeat things (like hum in the shower). One of the most notable shifts is both physical and mental: a profound need to stay put.

I’ve always been a homebody. I like routine. I relish the simple stuff  like cooking, walking the dog, and practicing yoga. At night I love cuddling on the couch with Mary to watch a movie or laugh at bad reality shows. I love sleeping in my own bed. Since I need a lot of alone time and dislike crowds, confined spaces, and flying, travel has always presented a challenge. But I bite the bullet because I know I’ll be happy once I’m there.

So, last summer, after I’d physically healed, I thought I was ready to hit the road. Nothing crazy, just a few trips to visit friends and family. Oy, big mistake. Somewhere along the way, my travel angst blossomed into a full-blown aversion. Departing for each trip felt like walking off the gangplank into a churning sea of chaos and confusion. Mary deserves a medal of honor for traveling with me because I was a mess. In DC, I burst into tears when we got lost leaving the rental car facility. In San Francisco, my favorite city in the world, I felt physically pummeled by the city’s vibrancy and spent most of the trip in our hotel room, dodging maid service and crying. Fun times.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was mired in a bog of depression and traveling exacerbated my sense of helplessness. (I’m doing much better now, thanks.) Finally, at the end of my last trip, I had a complete and utter meltdown and realized that what I really needed was to stay home, so that’s what I’ve done. For the past four months I’ve stayed home and the world feels right again.

Shortly after my epiphany, Dana Jennings, a writer for The New York Times who blogs about his experience with prostate cancer, posted an entry about his sudden desire to stay home. He writes, “More than ever these days, I want to shrink the world to the couple of rooms in my house where I’m most comfortable…I’m still reinterpreting myself in the face of cancer, and that takes time and quiet.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Soy Reprieve?

December 10, 2009

In the wake of my breast cancer diagnosis, I took a long, hard look at my diet. I stared down the contents of my refrigerator the way a crime victim glares at a line-up of possible perps. I wanted justice. I wanted revenge. I wanted to guarantee this wouldn’t happen to me again. (All the time knowing there are no guarantees.) Still, out went cheese, yogurt, and wheat (mostly). In came raw nuts, rice milk, and a staggering amount of fruits and vegetables. But one of the hardest transitions was saying goodbye to soy. I hung on with desperation, like a child hanging on to the last threads of her favorite blankie.

Eating soy meant I could still order a latte at Starbucks and—somehow—feel like I still had a toehold in the land of “foods normal people eat.” Saying yes to soy meant I could still indulge in things like eggless-egg salad and stir-fried tofu. But, after looking at the scientific research, I wasn’t convinced the natural phytoestrogens in soy wouldn’t ratchet up my body’s estrogen load. And, since I was going to the trouble of taking Tamoxifen to block the estrogen in my body, why possibly add to it?

My oncologist was no help, but, at least, he was honest. “We really don’t know if soy is helpful or harmful for breast cancer patients,” he said. Then he followed up with the mantra “in moderation it’s probably fine.” But “probably” was a far cry from the certainty I craved and when another health care professional questioned my continued intake of soy (saying something along the lines of “why play with fire?”) I decided he had a point. Maybe it was fine but what if it wasn’t? So, I said sayonara to soy foods.

But today I saw some news that made my shriveled taste buds perk up in hopes they may once again know the joys of soy. A study published in this week’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found a higher intake of soy foods was associated with a lower risk of death and breast cancer recurrence among breast cancer patients in China. Researchers enrolled more than 5,000 breast cancer survivors (a nice big number) and followed them for nearly four years (not a decade or more, which would have been nice, but a solid length of time). Interviewers asked them detailed questions about their diet and closely tracked the amount of tofu, soy milk, and other soy foods the women ate. In the end, they found that soy intake was inversely associated with mortality and recurrences in the group. Meaning, the more soy the women ate (up to 11 grams a day), the lower their odds of dying or having a breast cancer relapse.

So, what about those plant estrogens? The scientists are placing their bets on the anti-estrogenic theory of soy. In other words, that plant estrogens directly compete with the body’s own estrogens for cellular parking spaces. When a plant estrogen glides into a parking space, other estrogens are forced to keep circling. Eventually, the game of musical chairs ends and the estrogen (now dizzy from driving in circles) is booted from the body. As far as we know, beyond being parking-space hogs, plant estrogens don’t continue to impersonate “real” estrogen and, therefore, they subtract rather than add to the body’s estrogen load. At least, that’s the theory this group is espousing. While this notion isn’t new to me, it’s nice to see some new scientific oomph behind it.

Of course I would be remiss in my duties as a medical writer if I ever suggested one should make a dietary change based on a single study. And, no, you won’t find me bingeing on tofu and washing it down with great gulps of soy milk. But I may just indulge in the occasional soy latte. (After all, who can afford them more than occasionally?) So, thank you to scientists who keep exploring the hinderlands of breast cancer research, and Starbucks here I come…

My Radio Debut

November 2, 2009

An abbreviated version of last month’s blog entry “Pinked” aired on my local NPR station (WFIU) last Thursday, October 29th. (Thank you to all of the Bloomingtonians who tuned in!) The spoken-word version of my essay is a mere 300 words (2 min), but I think I got my point across.

If you’re interested in listening, here’s the podcast.

Warning: clicking on the link will take you straight to the recording, meaning my voice will immediately leap out of your computer. So, brace yourself, adjust the volume, close your office door, whatever you need to do…I found it a little startling myself ; )

PS. Still blogging for Time Magazine (insert sound of panting here…) but sharing the load with another writer, so I’m a wee bit less stressed. Just one more week to go!

What is it About Prayer?

October 27, 2009

My friend Bruce emailed last week and told me that his partner of 19.5 years has leukemia and is having a bone marrow transplant in a few days. Why is it that my first instinct was to tell him I’d pray for them? My confusion stemming from the fact that I tossed conventional prayer out the window long ago (right along with my Catholicism). So, instead I told him “I’m not the praying type,” but that I’d be holding them both near and dear to my heart in the coming weeks. That’s the absolute truth, but it still doesn’t sound as solid, as comforting, as results-oriented as “I’ll pray for you.”

In his reply, I was reminded of the many people who prayed for me and how grateful I felt for the good energy these folks (many of them strangers) pointed in my direction. He wrote, “it’s been really interesting to see in my circle of friends, near and extended, how many people either say that ‘you may be surprised, but I pray, and I’d like to pray for you.'” Then he told me this story that (with his permission) I’m posting here because I found it really touching. For context’s sake, Bruce and his partner, Stan, live in New York City with Terry, their adopted rescue Greyhound.

A Thai hairdresser who works near here would always stop to admire our dog, saying every time, “Beautiful. Like tiger.” Our dog leaned his head against her a few weeks ago , she looked at his soulful eyes, and said, sort of out of nowhere, “Is he okay? You know, I pray for people healing.” She said she often offers prayers to Buddha for her clients–she sends a donation to the temple in New Jersey she goes to. So I told her a bit about Stan, asked if she would pray for him, wrote his name on a piece of paper and wrapped it in a couple of dollars. (You know, even in cynical New York, this seems reasonable–we’ve seen this woman for well over a year, and she clearly has no interest in hitting people up for money.) so now I’ve got her enlisted too. When I got home, Stan smiled and said, “It can’t hurt.”

My thoughts exactly—it can’t hurt.

Thinking of you Stan and Bruce… And, to all of those who prayed for me, thank you.