There are several holidays and observances on the calendar that, although they do indeed have some form or another of official recognition, nonetheless often go by unnoticed. "Boss's Day," which takes place tomorrow (Tuesday, October 16th), has been one such holiday for me. The fact that I'm noticing "Boss's Day" this year is more than a little ironic, but more on that in a moment.
Another observance that I have never paid much attention to in the past is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is apparently every October. Although I haven't really noticed it much before, I'm seeing pink (the now-traditional color for breast cancer awareness) pretty much everywhere right now. When my wife and I went to lunch, there was a veritable platoon of firefighting personnel wearing pink shirts at the restaurant. While I was driving to do some toy hunting, there were billboards with pink symbols along the highway. When I went to our seminary's third-party supply site to purchase a stapler for one of my co-workers, the stapler I ended up getting was a pink stapler.
You may be able to guess at the reason for my sudden awareness of these two observances in conjunction. This past week, my supervisor of the past 12 years — the person who, in fact, hired me for my job at Fuller Theological Seminary — passed away after a long struggle with breast cancer.
There is yet another observance on the calendar today that, unless you read a lot of blogs, you may be unaware of. Today is "Blog Action Day." The theme for 2012 is "The Power of We," and the intention is for blogs everywhere to focus on topics of "Community, Equality, Transparency/Anti-Corruption and Freedom." That's a pretty broad swath of possibilities, and there's no way that I can do justice to them all. Thankfully, with over 2000 blogs signed up to participate, I don't have to.
My boss was known in the Fuller community (having been a part of it for most of her life) for being a rather private person. As such, I don't want to unnecessarily intrude on her privacy (even in death) in a way that would have made her uncomfortable. Instead, I want to honor her by writing about the power of community to help people who are currently fighting the same battle that she fought off and on for more than two decades.
National Breast Cancer Awareness Month was formally instituted in 1985. Although there were, of course, some attempts at promoting awareness prior to that date, it is nonetheless true that, in the decade prior to its introduction, cancer was still barely even discussed, and thus many women (male breast cancer does exist, but at only about 1% of all cases, I feel fairly safe in focusing on women, here) never sought treatment, let alone detection. By increasing education and awareness, people with cancers detected early enough now have a 98% chance of surviving the next 5 years (some sources say near-100%, but the point is clear). For those whose cancers cannot be removed completely, most are able to regain a significant semblance of "normal life" while continuing a treatment regimen, and technology for such treatments is improving all the time. These are successes that could not have occurred without communities of people gathering together to promote awareness, such as with the Komen Foundation's pink ribbon campaign, which itself started in 1991.
Let's talk about those pink ribbons and other similar items.... It's easy to dismiss the proliferation of pink products as trivial, and perhaps even counter-productive. Perhaps such an abundance of pink symbolism was the very reason why I was unaware that October was specifically designated for breast cancer awareness until I had specific reason to pay attention. Much as some Christians argue against pre-written prayers as conveying nothing more than "symbolism without the substance," detractors suggest that what they've called "pinkwashing" is too passive and superficial to create much impact in the actual fight against breast cancer, and perhaps even worse, has become little more than a cynical marketing campaign designed to sell products while making people feel disproportionately good about themselves. I want to take those criticisms seriously, as well as legitimate concerns that scam artists are taking advantage of people who seek to help. In that vein, here is a link to some non-pink ways to advocate for breast cancer.
But, much as is the case with those pre-written prayers, there is something about the message of breast cancer awareness, symbolized by all those pink-colored products, that has become ingrained in our subconscious, such that we are affected by them more than we often realize. While seeing one's doctor for preventative screening is by no means as universal as some might wish, it is nonetheless considered a normal part of personal medical care today. As such, lives have been saved that cannot be properly counted, and quality of life has been heightened for those who must live with cancers that, unfortunately, are not yet curable.
This was the case for my boss, who lived with this kind of diagnosis for not only the dozen years that I knew her, but indeed for over a decade even before that, and yet she continued her life at Fuller with little (if any) visible change until quite recently. While she was always uncomfortable in any kind of spotlight, I think she would be happy to suggest that people should take care of themselves by going to regular medical screenings, and that they donate to worthy organizations that promote research and awareness. I suggest the American Cancer Society, but if you care to do the necessary research to determine the organization that most readily promotes your own values, that's fine. Here is a link to get you started.