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boo·by trap 

Meaning: A practical joke. Also a concealed and possibly lethal trap.
Noun: A thing designed to catch the unwary, in particular
Verb: Place a booby trap in or on (an object or area): “the area was booby-trapped.”
Synonyms: snare, trick into doing something

“Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November . . .”  the rhyme reminds me, as it has done countless times before, that October has thirty-one days. Thirty one days to make us all abundantly aware of breast cancer, breasts and being a woman in America in 2012. Just ask any of the white, male, well-fed politicians whose offensive nonsense has taken up entirely too much of the media’s time in recent days.  As foreign to me as the patricians of ancient Rome, they stare down the TV cameras and look right into my living room, spewing about women and rape and gifts from God (in the same sentence). Maddeningly one-dimensional, like 1950’s made-for-TV fathers, they are fast becoming media darlings, exploiting every opportunity to make a point that resonates with “the base,” getting the  word out about what they really think about rape, choice, discrimination of women in the workplace, religion. Romney. Murdouch. Ryan. Men who interview them. I am so tired of you. All of you. Your perversion of logic, your ignorance about women.

I imagine former Chilean President,  Michelle Bachelett, is weary too. In her impassioned plea at the 20th anniversary gala at the Center for Reproductive Rights, she reminded a room full of like-minded women that:

We can all remember a time when women’s sexual and reproductive rights were not considered human rights … We continue to encounter backlash and opposition.That’s why our work is so crucial, to draw the line and hold the line on women’s rights. It must be reinforced: women’s rights are not a bargaining chip. Women’s rights are not up for negotiation. Women’s rights are fundamental to global development, and to international peace and security. Yet an estimated 222 million women in the developing world who want to plan and space their pregnancies still have no access to modern contraception. This leads to more than 9,000 unintended pregnancies every hour . . . these are women now placed at risk of unintended pregnancy and abortion, because they have no reproductive options.

No woman should pay with her life for a lack of options. But every year, 47,000 women die from unsafe abortions. Complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the number one killer of young women aged 15 to 19 worldwide.

It is unacceptable that we continue to talk about deaths we can prevent. What is really at stake here is the right to life: a woman’s right to life, and all the other human rights to which every woman is entitled.

Women must enjoy full and equal rights – to sexual and reproductive health, to education, to be equal participants and leaders in their economies and societies, and to be free from violence and discrimination. Until all women can enjoy all rights, including reproductive rights, we will draw the line & hold the line. Reproductive rights are absolutely fundamental to gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Women’s empowerment? Gender equality? Who did we think we were fooling when we told women they had come a long way, baby. As a mother and an immigrant woman who traded in the country of her birth for the dream of America, I can barely believe the words that fly at lightning speed from the lips of men who would be our leaders. I  have lost patience with cable news networks, mean-spirited campaign ads, and political punditry. I am stunned by the sexism – subtle and not so much – that has maintained a level of “acceptability.”  Watching The Daily Show is as important as a work-out, and I feel sluggish when I miss it. Jon Stewart’s take on the media suggests that he and his writers take me seriously. Smart and funny, The Daily Show “satirizes spin, punctures pretense and belittles bombast,” and then the “real” news networks talk about it.

Understandably fatigued by all of this, I take some solace in knowing that I only need to dodge four more days, and Breast Cancer Awareness Month will be over for another year.  When people show up to work on Thursday, November 1st,  morning, the pink ribbon removed from their lapels, I will breathe a sign of relief. I will, of course, still have breast cancer.

I am an unwilling conscript to this battle against breast cancer. Often, it feels as though I am holding my breath, wondering as I did forty years ago if the bomb scare was just that. A scare. A hoax. Except in my altered reality, the suspicious devices come in the form of tumors and test results and in waiting and worrying, in scheduling more time to spend in waiting rooms. It saps my energy. I have things to do. There is laundry and shopping, not because I am a woman, but because I like my clothes clean and our refrigerator stocked. For eleven months of the year, grocery store reconnaissance missions are completed without incident. No camouflage is necessary; it is easy to blend in. Minimal intelligence required. For the next four days, however, my mission is to navigate the Safeway checkout line without being hijacked by a well-meaning cashier who, dispassionately, will ask me to donate a dollar for breast cancer. If I say yes, she will bellow into the intercom, “I just got a donation for Breast Cancer. Can I get a Woo Hoo?” And, as they scan coupons and fill bags, paper or plastic, with other people’s groceries, a chorus of cashiers and bag-boys will, as automatons, respond, “Woo Hoo!” and I will flee. I will feel slightly guilty that I asked how much of my dollar would support breast cancer research, knowing that my question rendered her uncomfortable. But I will be more concerned that she has not been told how to answer my question except with receipt and a “Have a nice day!” Ironically, the young woman at the cash register is caught in the same trap with me –  woo-hoo!

There are other grocery stores, some with nary a lonely pink ribbon fluttering on the door, but they are few and far between. Even speciality stores are dressed out in pink, in an almost festive observance of breast cancer awareness month – a breast fest. Bizarrely, this brings to mind Loyalist areas in the Northern Ireland of my childhood. Parts remain the same today. In anticipation of “marching” season, Union Jacks and flags bearing a red hand hung out from bedroom windows of council houses, proclaiming allegiance to the Crown. Red, white, and blue bunting stretched from house to house, and pavement curbs were roughly painted in homage to British rule. Slogans spray-painted on otherwise scrubbed gable walls, echoed an imperative “Belfast Says No” that hung above the city’s hall in the 1980s and in our faces.  It was unavoidable even for those of us who wanted to remain anonymous, ordinary people for whom the moral imperative was peaceBoldly marking territory in no uncertain terms,  those banners and badges were divisive, as incendiary as the booby-trapped cars that lay in wait for the part-time police officer who, in a hurry to get home for a birthday celebration, failed to check under his car before turning the key in the ignition.

Perhaps it is over-wrought to compare breast cancer awareness campaigns to shows of loyalist strength that often culminated in sectarian violence. Death even. Personally, I find a legitimate link. The bunting that zig-zagged across the skies of the Shankill Road is not much different from the arch of balloons floating above the “KomenPhoenix2012” Finish Line in downtown Phoenix. I did not participate, much to the chagrin of acquaintances who know I have breast cancer. Why wasn’t I part of Komen’s “circle of promise?” Couldn’t I tap into the power of positive thinking? Why do I have to be so negative about breast cancer? Come on! Can’t you ferret out a silver lining? Make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? “Imagine a life without breast cancer!” the Susan G. Komen Foundation urges me. Alright. I imagine it every morning when I wake up. I imagined it during a recent unguarded moment in Bed, Bath and Beyond, the sole item on my agenda, a new duvet cover. I had barely crossed the threshold, when I was told to Fight like a Girl:

Even the tic tacs on display were pink, as was the pasta and the over-priced machine used to make it. I did my due diligence and visited the The Pasta Shoppe website, where I learned that 10% of proceeds from the sale of fun-shaped pasta will go directly to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Susan G. Komen was only 36 years old when she was killed by metastatic breast cancer  In the blink of an eye, just three years, it ravaged her body. The organization subsequently established by her sister, however, has failed to appropriately address the kind of cancer that killed her. Instead, the Komen foundation has relentlessly emphasized early detection and awareness. Sealed it with a pink ribbon, it is just not good enough. Not for me. Not for my daughter. Nor yours.

Surely the men who would be our leaders agree that we have made inadequate progress, that profit  – not people – has been of paramount importance? I have to wonder what Susan G. Komen would say about our progress, or Rachel Carson, who fifty years ago, warned us about pesticides and their link to cancer. Breast cancer killed her too. She would have something to say, I know, about the limited edition pink ribbon tic tacs. While I do not know how much of the tic tac proceeds go towards breast cancer research, I know they contain corn gluten, which is cause for concern. For Susan and for Rachel, and in this 2012 general election, all those women who fought hard for the right to vote, to be taken as seriously as men, Breast Cancer Action urges us to ask these Critical Questions Before You Buy Pink: 

  1. Does any money from this purchase go to support breast cancer programs? How much?
  2. What organization will get the money? What will they do with the funds, and how do these programs turn the tide of the breast cancer epidemic?
  3. Is there a “cap” on the amount the company will donate? Has this maximum donation already been met? Can you tell?
  4. Does this purchase put you or someone you love at risk for exposure to toxins linked to breast cancer? What is the company doing to ensure that its products are not contributing to the breast cancer epidemic?

Further, BCAction’s critical questions for voters help us apply and sustain pressure on policy makers. Breast cancer can no longer be covered up with pink ribbon purchases that manipulate us into feeling good about ourselves. The epidemic has been trivialized, glamorized, feminized. In October, it is more about the boobies and less about the disease. The slogans and the pink wristbands, the trappings of breast cancer are as acceptable as fashion accessories. For thirty-one days, we are told “to save the tatas” and reminded to “feel the boobies.” Baby-talk, sugar and spice and all things nice, the stuff of fairy-tales. Even the President of the United States sports a pink breast cancer awareness bracelet. Truly, it is just not enough.

I may be way off the mark, but somehow I cannot imagine our nation in the grip of a “Feel my Balls” campaign. America seems confounded by sex and gender; thus, guarantees of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone, ring hollow. Somewhere within the ‘Spaghetti Junction’ of stories that spin to advance political agendas and generate massive profits, lies the truth about the way things are and how they appear to be. A glamorous pink ribbon wrapped around an Estee Lauder model seems more socially palatable than a bald and fragile, vomiting cancer patient in the throes of yet another grueling, poisonous chemotherapy treatment.

Confronting the chilling reality of breast cancer is non-negotiable. It is time to ask the questions that will quell the rising tide and to demand answers. This leads me back to those men in the highest offices of the land, men who have failed to speak up, speak out, and mandate meaningful action, beyond the breasts and into research of the cancer that kills. It was a decade ago when BBC News reported that then United States Attorney General, John Ashcroft, asked the United States Department of Justice to shell out $8,000 for drapes to cover up the exposed right breast of The Spirit of Justice statue. The offending art-deco figure was often photographed behind him while he spoke to the media. Was it too life-like? Would a pink ribbon in front of the White House have been more acceptable? Regretfully, I think it might.

Breast cancer is ugly, and it hurts. Awareness campaigns hurt too, especially when they focus on the same old stories of early detection and treatment regimens that have been prescribed for decades –  some combination of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy. All about the boobs? Given the devastating toll of the disease, shouldn’t it all about the metastatic breast cancer?

I am supposed to be grateful, having paid – one way or another – over $80,000 – for a brand new breast and the flat stomach left behind after a brilliant surgeon spent almost 8 hours, painstakingly performing a DIEP flap. I have been told how lucky I am more times than I can recall. Offended by the picture? Don’t be. It is less offensive than the disease and the appalling lack of progress in figuring out what causes it or how to stop it in its tracks.  The JP drains, grenade-like, hanging from long rubber tubes that sprouted from either end of a hip-to-hip incision, are less contrived and embarrassing than the pink ribbon earrings that sell for thirty bucks on Ebay.

I’ll let you in on a secret. I miss my old body and the woman I used to be. I am wary and weary. Trapped.