TABOO - Is Breast Cancer a Dirty Word?

It has been a long time since I have curled up on my bed and thought long and hard about what is was like to be there suffering through chemo. Last night I did just that.  I came home, after being asked to leave work early and laid in my bed in the dark just reflecting on that period of my life. Sometimes it seems like eons ago. Other times, it seems like yesterday. It reality, it was five years ago.

I was told at work last night, after less than a week of working at a high end women’s fashion store that being a breast cancer survivor is something I am not to share with anyone. Being a survivor is something other women see as very sad, depressing and is not pretty.  A customer I assisted this week had a pink survivor bracelet on and I congratulated her on her recovery.  She told me she was a two year survivor and had just had her reconstruction completed from her double mastectomy.   The manager did not care to hear any of that; she said any talk of breast cancer is totally unacceptable. No one cares whether I had cancer or not and there is to be no talk of breast cancer in the store.  Breast cancer is sad, depressing and does not make anyone feel pretty. We are in the business of making people feel happy and pretty. If people don’t feel that way, they won’t spend money.  I want sales in my store and for that to happen, women need to be happy.” 

She made it quite clear I am not to mention to anyone ever again that I am a breast cancer survivor.  This discussion took place in the back stock room right after I got to work. All the other employees in the area were quickly told to leave the room as it was obvious I was going to be talked to in private by the big boss.   There were two other items on her agenda discussed but this was the item that really took my breath away.  Quite honestly, I was shocked.

I was told that the effect of me mentioning breast cancer to her business was that it would create a negative spiral and cause no one to want to shop in the store if they knew a survivor worked there.   I am to only talk about the clothes in the store.  She spoke as if I stand around and talk about breast cancer on the job for hours.   No one there knows anything about my battle, not the type I had, where I had treatment, where I lived when I was diagnosed, etc…because I have never discussed a single aspect of it with anyone, including a customer.  

She went on to warn me that my hours will be cut if I am heard bringing up this subject again.  Eventually she would have to let me go, as in lose my employment.  Breast cancer is an ugly thing.   Women will walk past her store and not come in.     She continued to educate me on how she feels the other half of women see breast cancer, seeing women like me as sad and feeling more like what she described as pitiful than compassion towards a survivor.  Customers will then, according to her, not feel beautiful being in the store or want to buy clothing there and will leave not spending money.    She will not stand for me affecting her sales.  Cancer is ugly.    It doesn’t seem to matter that there are signs all over the store about her corporation sponsoring hope for breast cancer, even selling Hope T shirts benefiting breast cancer.    Or that this store is for women, a disease that affects women.

This was repeated to me countless times.   I suppose she thought I had a severe case of chemo brain and wanted to be sure I heard it all correctly and it stayed etched in my brain. I have never, in five years, been made to feel so unclean and ugly as I was last night about the fact that I had breast cancer.   No one has ever looked me straight in the eye and actually said to me that nobody cared that I had breast cancer. Though I know that is not true as I have a wonderful support system, the sting of her words burns in my memory and heart. I find tears stinging my eyes even now when I think of my friends that have died and those that have fought to survive this dreaded disease being cast in this ugly group with me. 

I pride myself on having a positive attitude.  I can’t believe women would discriminate against other women simply because of a disease no one asks for.  But yet, it does exist, in a high end women’s clothing store in mainstream America.  Odd too that it would occur in the South where the disease is even more prevalent.   I had a conversation with only one other customer at this store about breast cancer.   This woman was in the store trying to buy a Hope T shirt in the size large as she could not find it at the other store location.  I asked her if she knew anyone that was affected by breast cancer.  She responded with who she knew.  I told her I was a survivor also and thanked her for her support.  I asked her if she was walking the Komen Walk and when she responded no I simply said thank you for wearing the shirt to show your support.  

However, during this exchange, a young twenty-five year old employee and another employee close to my age were standing idly by as it was slow that evening,  apparently ease-dropping on the conversation.  They must have heard something they found offensive and reported it back to the manager that I had indeed admitted to a customer that I was a breast cancer survivor.  That preempted the need for me to be reprimanded even though this woman was in the store for no other reason but to purchase the shirt for breast cancer.

I think what  I found the most upsetting was her general attitude about breast cancer. It was a reoccurring theme of it being ugly. Yes cancer is ugly,  but to imply that the women who survive it  are somehow perceived as ugly individuals and would somehow discourage other women from wanting to be around them  as it would interfere with their ability to feel beautiful is short sighted and unfair.  Furthermore,  to elaborate and state that women would actually avoid shopping at a clothing store to avoid being near a cancer survivor employee is just plain outrageous.   That mentality went out  years ago; cancer is not contagious.   Her concern is dollars in her store, nothing else. And for this conversation to take place in October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month when the whole country is focused on awareness of one of the top medical issues we are faced with, how hypocritical.  She does not want to know if her customers are survivors, she just wants them spending money. Where is the heart and soul of the business model here towards the true inner beauty of a woman? How can you make a woman beautiful if you are unwilling to unleash her inner beauty also?

Today, I simply retreated, much as I did when I was in treatment.  My objective today was to digest how the world views me, a breast cancer survivor. I am not happy I had cancer, I did not want it, I am sad I had it.  But I am glad, in particular, I put the survivor at east, earlier this week,  in spite of the pain it caused me later in the week.  I am glad because her recent surgery was indeed painful, emotionally more so than physically. She needed to hear, from someone who had been there, right then, at that time, while trying on clothes, she was indeed beautiful. I suppose, in some ironic twist of fate, God put me there. And how twisted it is  that Saturday night I am sitting at the same store, in the back stock room.   Essentially I was being told for the same reason, because I am a breast cancer survivor and revealed it,  I am a deterrent, somewhat ugly, for anyone wanting to shop there.   I am blessed I told a woman the complete opposite earlier in the week on the other side of the wall.  

Earlier in the week, when this one customer told me she was a two year survivor, with that hopeful look that I would understand, I simply said five years for me. We shared that knowing look that says, ‘been there, done that.’ I told her what every women wants to know that has been to hell and back, “You look beautiful.”     I congratulated her and told her she looked awesome.   And we hugged.  

As the customer, a survivor,  stepped back in to the changing room, I was waved up out of the changing area by the assistant manager quickly.  She pulled me over to the side and said urgently, “Do not get close to the customers at all.” I explained to her, the assistant manager, that the customer had whispered to me she just got her final surgery complete on her reconstruction work.   She was a breast cancer survivor.  It didn't matter to her what the customer was going through, she did not want me talking about anything like this.  It is this mentality that this topic if foreign to them and not pleasant. 

It was apparent this assistant manager was upset by her demeanor.   Maybe when you have not walked the road of cancer, you cannot relate to how life changing it can be.  Or maybe you don’t understand how easily survivors naturally bond.  Having a support system when you are out there, trying on new clothes with a new body was wonderful Godsent for this lady. She had her new breasts in place and I was there for her, to stand by silently and give an honest opinion.  She knew I had been where she was just a few years before, without us exchanging a word.  She bought a multitude of clothes that , over $750.00.  

Incidentally, when the customer went to pay for her purchase, the assistant manager would not allow me to ring out her sale at the register. It was my customer and we are paid commission.  The assistant manager took the entire sale as her own. I suppose she was punishing for the exchange about breast cancer. 

Sales numbers and dollars are the only figures my supervisor, soon to be promoted to the district sales manager is concerned about. Here are some real hard numbers to look at also.   2.9 million and 18 million. The first number is how many  cancer survivors there are as of June 2012 in the United States according to the American Cancer Society and the second figure is the approximate number there will be in 2022. Among female cancers, breast cancer is the most prevalent with 41% getting breast cancer. The national norm is 1 out of 8 women get diagnosed.  The single largest group of cancer survivors is breast cancer survivors, making up 54% of all cancer survivors. That is a sizable percent of the buying population. If this manager, soon to be district manager of a female clothing store is correct in her assumptions, this organization is surely in for some rough times ahead!

I suppose I should caution other breast cancer survivors out there to not share their success with others in the work place or run the risk of being reprimanded. But, I leave that up to you to decide.  I will never open my mouth again without hesitating.   The look in her eyes, of total lack of compassion, was unfathomable to me. I had just come from walking the Susan  Komen walk.   I always knew I was prettier before cancer and here someone was pointing it out to me loud and clear. 

Sometimes, as a survivor, you think you are invincible, on top of the world. Then something happens and you feel knocked back down. Usually it is another cancer scare.  I never dreamed it would be a callous comment that would send me reeling.   Last night, I felt hit by a boulder that left me taking a critical look at myself.   At least at first it did.  Now not as much so. 

I hope other women that haven’t had breast cancer don’t look at breast cancer survivors like these three women do.   I pray they don’t.   I wonder, if this attitude is reflective of their company as a whole or just the individuals?   Actually I pray breast cancer survivors are not thought of as ugly, sad pathetic individuals who are bad for business and bring sales down for women’s clothes.  Fighting cancer is hard, is it fair we should also have to fight misconceptions after the fact that are groundless?  Please don’t prejudge us. 

It is hurtful and unfair to be judged based on a diagnosis for anyone, no matter what the diagnosis is and not for who you are as an individual.  Breast cancer does NOT define the person; it is a disease, treated and they hopefully conquered. 

I am strong.    I am a survivor. I will not be silenced.  If I was meant to be, God would have taken me. And yet, I am still here, still standing strong.  
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