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?