Octobre Rose

I’ve always hated pink.

Not just the colour, but what it represents. Pink for girls, blue for boys. Berk, as they say in my adopted land. Yuck.

But I’ll make an exception for pink this month. It’s ‘October Rose’ in France, Pink October. And breast cancer prevention is worthy of even the most vile of shade of rose bon-bon, candy pink or my most-hated fuchsia.

I guess I hate breast cancer even more.

My mother died of breast cancer in 1989. That will make it 30 years ago next March. I was pregnant with her first grandchild at the time. Her grandson, Elliott, born the following September, helped me get through that first year.

There is something especially cruel about breast cancer. Cancer du sein. It attacks the very heart of motherhood. That maternal breast that nourished us as babes in arms is eaten up by cells that grow haywire, out of control, that harden and metastasize. In my mom’s case, it went into her liver.

That was after the chemo. First came the trauma of a mastectomy, then the nauseating treatments and hair loss. But she rode out that first wave. Came to Paris for our wedding in 1986. By then her hair had grown back. A few years later so did the cancer.

While research has made great strides in understanding the genetics of the disease, and therapy has become more targeted, detection and prevention of breast cancer have not advanced much. Aside from those with a genetic predisposition to the disease, particularly that ticking time bomb of BRCA mutations, the only ‘prevention’ widely used is early detection by mammogram.

Essentially this means that, beyond living a healthy lifestyle, eating well and not drinking too much, our only option is irradiating our breasts to find out if we have a tiny tumour in the making. I have been getting biannual mammograms since the age of 35, which adds up to a lot of radiation over time. Now there is considerable controversy over whether that is, in fact, a good idea.

Some countries, like Switzerland, have opted out of routine mammograms. It seems they consider the risks, between radiation exposure and over-diagnosis, outweigh the benefits. Yet what choice does someone with a family history of breast cancer have? You are damned if you don’t and, possibly, damned if you do.

Not to mention how unpleasant it is to have that particular part of your anatomy squeezed flat between two pieces of glass, pinching the skin of your arm pit while the technician orders you not to breathe or risk having to do it all over again, doubling the dose of radiation. I remain convinced that if men had to submit to a similar procedure for testicular cancer, they would have found a better way long ago.

Still, it is better than the alternative. And I can only imagine how grateful one would feel when such a test picks up a cancer very early on.

That was the case for Caitlin Kelly, a fellow Canadian and a journalist who shares her recent personal experience with breast cancer on her blog, Broadside. Happily, her prognosis is excellent. This week’s post also includes a link to Caitlin’s story, published in the New York Times, about the importance of touch in medical care. Check it out: https://broadsideblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/08/exposing-oneself-to-millions/

So, pink it is for this month at least. Let’s hope that increased awareness will save lives and that research will get us a better way to detect and prevent this terrible disease.

I’ll raise a (small) glass of rosé to that!

Has breast cancer touched your life?


  1. M. L. Kappa · October 11, 2018

    Good post!

  2. francetaste · October 11, 2018

    I don’t think anybody has not been touched in some way by breast cancer. One in 8 women gets it. When I looked around my gym class, I thought, that means at least four of us here has had or will have breast cancer (obviously, you can have 100 people and nobody with cancer or 10 people and all with cancer, but just the overall ratio put into a context was sobering). It has struck so many friends, including several who have died. Relatives. My SIL really went through hell with chemo. My daughter was so affected by her beloved aunt’s trauma, she grew out her hair, then chopped it off to donate for wigs for cancer patients. She’s done it twice (it takes time to grow it really long).
    I even have a male friend who has breast cancer. Worse for him because nobody looked for it, and when he noticed the tumor it was quite large.

    • MELewis · October 12, 2018

      Twice! Your daughter sounds like a very strong young woman. One in 8 is a sobering figure…and as for men, while surely less frequent, it must be awful on an entirely different level. I have lost a mother, an aunt, several friends and sisters of friends, not to mention the many survivors whose stories are all around us.

  3. Kiki · October 11, 2018

    YES, a very sound YES to all of this post…. And on the ‘funny’ side of this; YES, that first photo is rather off-putting and I’m not shying away from pink 😉
    The DRAMA of having breast cancer…. your description of your mum’s ‘history’ brings it really up to the point of You’ve got to Understand it – that it attacks the centre and heart of motherhood. I’ve not really thought of that. For me it was – in most cases – a sign of a ‘breaking heart’….. Interesting though, isn’t it? I probably have that notion because when I went to hospital with a cancer scare, which, in the end, was just that – thanks God! – it took me two full years before I realised that in fact it was my broken heart that caused those (good natured) knots in my breast (left one, figure!).
    But later on, both my sis were affected, and it was bad news for both of them.
    So, I gladly do that terribly hurtful test every two years (as long as I live in France) and I gladly went to have my 6mo controls during a long time after the op…. and also I’ve learned to pay attention to What my Body Tells me!!!!
    Excellent post, as ever. Food for thoughts for many, I hope.

    • MELewis · October 12, 2018

      Glad you enjoyed the post. It sounds like you have been through a lot with this scourge of a disease, Kiki, even if you were fortunate that it was only a scare. Both sisters! I can understand why you don’t hesitate to have the mammograms. Paying attention to one’s own body is probably the best thing any of us can do, but I think we are not all equal this way. I’m pretty good at ‘hearing myself’ as the French say – Je m’écoute, even too much at times. Hope your heart has healed as well as your body!

      • Kiki · October 12, 2018

        It has thank you. And yes, I too am always listening to my inner body, since…..

  4. Anna · October 11, 2018

    Great post, Mel. One of many of yours that move me to tears.

    • MELewis · October 12, 2018

      Thanks, Anna. It’s one of those I wrote from the heart and you must’ve picked up on that. Bises! xo

  5. Elizabeth Lewis · October 11, 2018

    Thanks for sharing, this is an excellent post!
    Having said that, I do not have your hatred of pink… in fact, I think I wore it to your wedding! It’s too late to say sorry…. I guess I didn’t realize how much you disliked it.

    I have been a bit of a rebel regarding my mammograms and have not followed doctor’s recommendations over the years (I spread things out as much as possible and maybe had 4 in my 40’s). I did have one this year though, as I am turning the same age mom was when diagnosed. Thankfully, it was normal. I have always been concerned about the radiation that we get exposed to during a mammogram, its effects are accumulative after all…. but it is a personal decision every woman needs to make. My Rheumatoid Arthritis makes it even more complicated! And don’t even get me started on “breast density”!

    I remain hopeful that one day soon there will be better detection and treatment…. perhaps even a cure!
    Liz xo

    • MELewis · October 12, 2018

      Thanks, sis! I wish I had a doctor or someone with insight into the science who could explain the statistical probability of a mammogram picking something up in my age group so as to better understand the risk. I remember Mom saying that Grandma Kennedy had a lump in her breast. As I recall she died at 87 from a heart attack so if she had breast cancer it was surely very slow growing. The whole thing is so complex and as you say, each of us must make the decision that feels right. As for pink, Liz, you looked wonderful in that very pale shade you wore to our wedding. It is one of the few shades of pink I really do not mind! xo

  6. coteetcampagne · October 11, 2018

    Your experience and your mother’s are absolutely identical to mine.
    Prior to breast cancer she had a hysterectomy to capture early stage uterine cancer at 51, as did I.

    I’m now older than my mother was when she died.
    I cannot shake of the overwhelming, ever present feeling that I live on borrowed time.

    • MELewis · October 12, 2018

      Oh, I know what you mean about the borrowed time! I am older than my mother was when they detected her cancer but not yet the age she was when she died. It is a funny feeling when we start to to do the math. But I always remind myself that my mother’s story is not my story, even if I am deeply affected by it. Hugs!

      • coteetcampagne · October 12, 2018

        And to you Mel
        We just move forward, try to take care of ourselves(as well as everybody else) and try to truly live every day of the time given to us. X

  7. eyelean · October 11, 2018

    How wrenching to lose a mother while expecting. I’m terribly sorry that happened to you and your mom. My aunt went through hell just after my son was born dealing with awful treatments that sent her into the hospital multiple times, and she said daily photos of my tiny newborn helped her through it. My mother in law had it just before our wedding though she had a much more manageable time with it. Thank goodness they’re both fine now, probably thanks to advances in science and of course cruelly dumb luck. I don’t know though, the science teachers at my school asked everyone to wear pink this week and I didn’t—I just don’t know how I feel about symbolic actions with nothing concrete behind it. Maybe I’m wrong… I don’t know.

    • MELewis · October 12, 2018

      Thanks for your thoughts and for recognizing that it was a tough time to lose a mother. It’s funny, at the time I felt like being pregnant protected me from the overwhelming grief but later I realized that I had only buried, or deferred it.

      Alas, I fear there is no wrong or right. Only what we feel is true to ourselves. I know what you mean about the symbolic gesture — it feels empty. Yet, sometimes it also feels like the least we can do. I also struggle with this. Luck and science, or some alchemy of both, seem to be our only hope. 😨

  8. Colin Bisset · October 11, 2018

    Great post, Mel, and spot on about testicular cancer – things would’ve changed if men had to go through what women go through (in so many ways).

    • MELewis · October 12, 2018

      Thank you, Colin. It felt a little easy to make such an obvious gender-based statement, but there has to be some truth in it. I’ve heard of something called thermography to test for breast (and other) cancer but it apparently controversial in terms of effectiveness.

  9. The Pink Agendist · October 12, 2018

    How very DARE you!!!

    • MELewis · October 13, 2018

      Well, of course, you know there is pink and, ahem, PINK. Love the latter, especially on you, Monsieur! 😂

  10. Heide · October 12, 2018

    I can’t imagine the heartbreak of losing your mum while you were pregnant with her grandson, Mel — or the anguish too of having this disease in your family history. And I share your outrage that the treatment options haven’t progressed much (not to mention the controversy even over the tests)! So in solidarity, this fellow hater of pink will join you in wearing a little ribbon this month, and in hoping that increased awareness will save lives. Your post has certainly contributed to that awareness … so beautifully written.

    • MELewis · October 13, 2018

      Thank you, dear Heide. Your kind words warm my heart. 😍 It was a very long time ago but as you can imagine, some wounds never quite heal. I do love the pink solidarity this inspires.

      • Heide · October 13, 2018

        I lost my mother when I was five and even though it was decades ago the wound never quite healed for me either, dear Mel. I can only imagine how much worse the grief would be when you’re old enough to comprehend the enormity of the loss … so my heart really does go out to you. xx

  11. awtytravels · October 13, 2018

    I, too, lost my mother to breast cancer. 2014, aged 52. Long live prevention, especially now there are some non-invasive techniques being trialled…

    • MELewis · October 14, 2018

      It doesn’t really matter how old we (and they) are, does it? When we lose a parent, we are orphans at any age. So sorry for your loss. Here’s to new hope through research!

  12. nessafrance · October 14, 2018

    How terrible for you to lose your mother when you were pregnant – and awful to see the whole ghastly process from diagnosis through operation to chemo, etc., only for it not to be effective.

    My mother had breast cancer at 74. Fortunately, it was a small tumour, easily removed. She didn’t even have radiotherapy or chemo and died at 85 of something else. However, her elder sister died from cancer that started as breast cancer. And two of my cousins have now had it – one only last year at the age of 64. I feel it’s like a Sword of Damocles hanging over me. I have had mammograms once a year since I was 42 (so almost 20 years) and each time I wonder if it’s “this time”. The treatment is still a blunt instrument. But the detection and treatment processes are the best we’ve been able to come up with so far.

    I’m aware of the risks of irradiation from mammograms, but I will continue to go every year. After all, as you rightly say, if it picks up something early that otherwise would develop into a tumour that’s more difficult to treat, then that has to be good.

    In the meantime, I’ll join you in raising a glass, but since I’m not keen on rosé, mine will be a Kir – even pinker!

    • MELewis · October 14, 2018

      Thanks, Nessa, for your kind words! Sounds like we face similar worries about the risks of both the disease and the prevention. But I agree: ultimately, it’s the best we’ve got so we must make the most of it until something better comes along. BTW, kir is one of my favourite apéritifs. Santé!

  13. Suzanne et Pierre · October 21, 2018

    I also hate pink with a passion but I do agree with you that I make an exception for breast cancer month. In Canada, there is recommended mammograms every two years after the age of 50. It is indeed a very unpleasant exam but it is an important one I think….(Suzanne)

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