A little blue in a sea of pink

Image used with permission from the John W. Nick Foundation http://www.malebreastcancer.org

When I was expecting my first daughter after having two sons I knew I’d have to confront my issues with pink.

It’s pretty much impossible to have a daughter and not to have to dress them in pink at some stage. I’ve tried purple and red and got the “isn’t he lovely” comments. Rainbow is a favourite, as is brown and we got a lovely navy blue velvet dress as a hand-me-down.

I’d really love to dress her in blue (my favourite colour) more regularly than our one velvet hand-me-down allows yet blue clothes for female babies seem to be as rare as hen’s teeth. Blue only enters the rungs of female clothing when girls are old enough to be declared ‘a girl’ without the aid of the pink flag of clothing. Pink prevails in the shops and in all the gifts we’ve been given. Aside from not liking the colour pink I’m determined to raise a feminist daughter. While I’m responsible for choosing her clothing pink and assorted ‘princess’ clothes will be minimised. A little blue, in a sea of pink, is all I ask.

But it’s not only for my baby girl, and how I want her to grow up, that I want to confront pink. I want to confront pink for my dad.

October is the month of pink. Every October we swim in it. Pink products line our supermarket shelves; everything from vitamins, soap, paper and crumpets can be bought with a pink tinge. Yup – it’s breast cancer awareness month. And this year it seems everything is going pink. Buildings and bridges are being lit up pink and even the virtual world is going pink. Whilst this is absolutely brilliant for raising awareness of the issue of breast cancer for women there is a downside to it.

As part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month this Sunday the 28th October the Dragon’s Abreast Festival will be held at Darling Harbour. Dragon Boating is encouraged to aid recovery post surgery for breast cancer sufferers and to provide something really important to breast cancer sufferers; a social network of people who’ve been touched by the disease. This Sunday my dad will be paddling in a ‘survivors’ boat. Yup, you read that correctly – my DAD. My dad is a breast cancer survivor.

Men possess a small amount of breast tissue behind their nipples, so yes, they too can, and do, get breast cancer. According to statistics from Cancer Australia over 100 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer each year in Australia, and the numbers appear to be rising. In the US approximately 2000 men will be diagnosed each year and almost 400 men will die each year from breast cancer.

With all our attention devoted to breast cancer in women breast cancer has become seen as a woman’s disease when actually it is not gender specific. Because of the lack of awareness in men (and women) about the existence of male breast cancer sometimes it is diagnosed too late. Men may be aware of a lump and not see a doctor. Even among doctors there is a lack of awareness that men can get breast cancer. When my dad went to the GP about his lump she sent him to a specialist. The specialist merely advised that it was likely to be hormonal and to reduce his consumption of chicken and chocolate and things that might influence hormone production. If he’d been female, there would have been no way he would have walked out of that office without a referral for an ultrasound or even a biopsy. When his cancer was ultimately diagnosed much later, like many male sufferers, the cancer was more aggressive and advanced. For some men, it has already spread to other parts of their body.

The lack of awareness about male breast cancer also has the unfortunate effect that, for many men, being diagnosed with breast cancer can be a source of shame and humiliation. The sea of pink that has arisen around breast cancer has probably made it the most feminised place to be in the world. Male sufferers have reported doing the ‘walk of shame’ into waiting rooms full of women, and being interrogated by nurses and receptionists as to whether they’re ‘in the right place.’ Explaining to friends and family that they have ‘breast cancer’, something they never thought was humanly possible to get, can somehow make them feel less than a man.

So whilst we swim in a sea of pink this October, I just want to add a hint of blue in there. My dad likes to tell his story because, like many other male breast cancer sufferers, he thinks that if his story can reach just one man and help them to detect the disease early it is a story well shared. But for me it’s not just about helping men avoid late diagnosis. It’s about helping men like my dad feel more accepted.

Breast cancer networks and pink ribbon days need to reach out and include the male sufferers of the disease. Otherwise it’s always going to be such an incredibly hard road to walk for these men. Who needs to fight stigma on top of fighting cancer? We’ve done so well with pink awareness, surely there’s a little room for some blue in the sea of pink now and then?

About greenleftyidealist

Green, left and idealistic. A mum, a runner, a rogainer, a public servant and wanna be writer. My dog is golden.
This entry was posted in identity, parenting, society, women and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A little blue in a sea of pink

  1. Stephen B aka The Ukebum aka Boloz (Hawaiian/Filipino nickname for "bald," my name during chemo) says:

    Hey there Lefty Green:

    Aloha from Hawaii (Big Island). Ran across your blog. We should talk.

    I’m a “survivor” (hate that word) in my own “battle” (hate that one even more) against “male breast cancer” (my most unfavorite phrase). Yup, I had breast cancer in my left breast, a lump there for years, told “that’s just fatty tissue — you really need to lose weight,” then lump got bigger, nipple inverted and got itchy, so I Googled myself a self-diagnosis, and went on in to see my doctor. She was busy, so I got the nurse practitioner. Got felt up, she gave me the famous “look away” look (trouble brewing), and I was sent on over to the Women’s Health Center for a mammogram (dad-o-gram?). Got in the same day, since it was Halloween, and none of the moms, grandmoms, or aunties would book a trip for the titty squeeze on Halloween — they’re all off putting costumes on the kids. Walked in — surrounded by receptionists, staff, mammographists, ultra-sounders, nurses — all women, naturally, all dressed in variations of pink ribbon Halloween costumes (goes well with orange and black). Looked around for the Cigar Bar entrance, but there wasn’t one….Walked right in for my Photo Shoot, and was asked “Is this your first mammogram?” Yup. First ultrasound? Yup. Well, Dr. will see you now (Dr., of course, being the one and only guy in the place — what’s up with the sexism imbedded in that little factoid? Let’s leave that for another day…on with the story we go.)

    Well, let me tell ya, I can easily do and hour and a half stand up routine on Pec Cancer. It’s a real scream — really. Not kidding. The saga was, and continues to be, pretty hilarious. But hey, after surgeries, chemo, radiation, throw a divorce in the middle too, and some nasty depression episodes, I came out, um, uh, cured (?), 80, maybe 90 pounds less of me (ah hah! lost weight, as instructed!), moved to Hawaii from my California birthplace, “retired,” reduced my income about 75%, and won the my “fight” with cancer. Uh oh, there’s my final hated phrase. “Fight” cancer? Nobody fights, really, we just roll along, lazily being poked, poisoned, and pummeled. Some of us last a bit longer, some of us don’t. It’s sort of an oddly dream-like state, during chemo especially. Flying high on steroids and antihistamine overdoses for a day or two after treatment, then the post-steroidal crash, another three or four day snooze before the next poisoning session begins, and the “battle” continues. Fight, fight, fight, snore, snore, snore….dreamily, we roll along…

    So, if the Big C comes back, and I die, I am appointing you, Lefty, to police my friends and family so no one writes “He battled his [wait, I refuse to own “my” cancer] cancer for xx years, valiantly losing the fight in his beloved Hawaii with his little ukulele in his hand, yessir, with his little ukulele in his hand.” (If you don’t get the ukulele reference, your dad should — George Formby sang that one. Yanks don’t know about Formby; only Brits, Aussies and Kiwis are in that loop. My, how I ramble on, and on, and on…)

    Here’s a good bit in the long story: after moving to Hawai’i, and going through numerous on-line dating fiascos, including an ill-fated trip to Ireland (serious date, that one), my acupuncturist told me she had a new patient that I might like to meet. Well, Jennifer had left her cheating, lying husband, and moved here from North Carolina. Hubby hadn’t gotten along with her since her double mastectomy. Jen asked Dr. Janice if she knew of any +/-60 year old guys who might like a date, but, Jenny said, “well, it’ll never work, men need boobs, and I had a double mastectomy…” Before she could end the sentence, Janice sang out “Him too! Two!!” We married last June.

    This past summer, as part of a 2-month honeymoon, we attended a terrific Tibetan Buddhist retreat with a wonderful teacher, Lama Tsultrim Allione. She’s written a great book, “Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict.” I reserved a spot to attend the retreat before I’d read the book. On page19, she writes: “We do not try to understand our illnesses. Instead, whenever we get sick we immediately develop strategies to ‘fight’ the illness. Obituary columns routinely read ‘So-and-so died after a long battle with cancer.’ ”

    Well, Lefty, hope I didn’t scare you off — I really loved your post. Give Dear Dad a slap on his pectorals from me, and let him know I regularly swim here, and if anyone asks about the monster scar and lack of chest hair on my left upper side, I tell ’em I fell off the surf board, went head first into the Great White Shark, punched him in his fishy throat, and swam away, living to tell the tale of “my cancer year” (Oct 31, 2008 — November-ish, 2009)….

    best aloha,

    Stephen B.
    Kea’au, Hawai’i

    • Your reply to my blog post has left a huge grin on my face. I rang my mum and dad straight away to share with them what you wrote. If you’re not already really doing a stand up routine you ought to (and perhaps it would raise more awareness of the fact that blokes can get it)! Sadly your story is an all to familiar occurrence – but at least it’s nice to share the highs and lows in as humorous a way as we can. It was so wonderful to hear the outcome of your story though. I wish good health to you and your partner and many happy days ahead. I’m sure my dad would love to meet you so if you’re ever in the land of oz do get in touch.

  2. Sue Lawton says:

    It was lovely to hear of your response and to read your story. You also gave us a few good laughs, always good therapy! Thank you so much for sharing it in response to ‘a little blue in a sea of pink’. It is very heartening and supportive to others to learn how much you have managed to get through and now have a happy relationship and lifestyle.
    Sometimes when my husband is asked about his mastectomy scar at the Gym or if swimming he says outrageous things like ‘he got it in Vietnam’ but then he usually clarifies the matter often to the surprise of people and the response that ‘I didn’t know men could get breast cancer’.
    In December we went to Townsville to welcome home our army son from Afghanistan and meet an army Captain who has had breast cancer. We were able to have a Dragon Boat paddle with him which was great. HE paddles regularly with the Draons Abreast Club in Townsville as we do with the Dragons Abreast Sydney Club. All the ladies and their supporters, many males have always been helpful and supportive. There are now several male ‘survivors’ paddling here. We have an event sometimes for all cancer survivors as well as breast cancer specifically.
    In 2010 we went to Peterborough in Canada for an International Breast Cancer Dragon Boat regatta where we met two other male breast cancer paddlers, both doing great things to promote awareness of MALE BREAST CANCER. Herb Wagner a Canadian who also spends quite a lot of time in Canada has worked very hard to raise awareness and formed a Male Breast Cancer organisation. Try looking at the website and you will find many stories you can read. He has a blue and pink metallic pin with male breast cancer on it which we also use.
    In May some ladies in Townsville (Northern Queensland, Australia) are organising a regional conference about breast cancer with Dr John Boyages, a top radiology oncologist from Sydney as one of the speakers. In the advertising for the first time to our knowledge (at least in Australia) it invites men and women in a way which recognises both, as people who can get breast cancer. That is very pleasing to read.
    Thank you again and our best wishes to you and your partner for happy healthy living. (and ukele playing).
    Sue and Bob

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