Think Before You Pink

Judy WaechterBy Judy Waechter RN, Community Nurse Liaison with Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

My family votes October the “Best Month of the Year.” We are Fall people. We love the weather, the colors, scents and flavors. It’s our common denominator.

We share another bond. More than a mutual interest, it’s greater than any shared physical characteristic. It connects through four generations on both sides of our family tree. Like holiday lights strung neatly from one name to the next, a series of connected pink, blue, and white dots light up our family tree – Spring colors. And we are Fall people.

These are the seasonal colors of cancer. A year-round season of pastel colors representing the organs that, given the chance, will kill you. Our personal family history is obscured by a more pressing medical history.

Kansas City HospicePink is not my color

I often speak to groups about cancer awareness. When I participate in a breast cancer awareness event, I have to purchase something pink to wear. It’s typically a generic blouse in a subdued hue to meet the event dress code, never to be worn otherwise. I just don’t do pinks.  

Cancer survivors mostly blend into the population, virtually unnoticed. Many prefer to keep this piece of their story private, to be shared only on a “need to know” or “choose to tell” basis. Despite the growth in public awareness of cancers over the last few decades, it remains an individual and highly personal experience, as varied as the person who receives the diagnosis.

Reactions vary from a casual reference as benign as “when I was sick” or “when I was in treatment” to the vehement statements more characteristic of a military coup with descriptions including words such as invade, attack, fight.

It’s no wonder then that pink, a color noted for its feminine, playful, calming effects was chosen by both Avon and Estee Lauder cosmetics just 25 years ago to promote breast cancer awareness and research. Pink is everything cancer is not. It replaced an earlier movement of peach ribbons, a grass roots awareness begun by Charlotte Haley years before. She chose not to have her breast cancer ribbons commercialized.

And that’s my point. Today many supporters and survivors wear pink proudly, both to support those who have had the diagnosis as well as the organizations raising funds for awareness, early detection and research. The pink ribbon is synonymous with the breast cancer movement. Others hate it with a passion.

Some cancer survivors dread October

A few Octobers ago, I attended a support group for those living with metastatic disease cancer at Gilda’s Club Kansas City. They jokingly refer to themselves as living while dying.  A middle-aged woman with metastatic breast cancer spoke up: “I dread October. All this pink makes me want to slit my wrist.”

I was reminded of my sister in law’s comments just a few short years earlier, her husband a breast (and now bladder) cancer survivor, “All the pink is really obnoxious. It excludes and stigmatizes the disease for men and you can’t get away from it. Pink fountains, like it’s a party. I hate it.” Her sister is also a breast cancer survivor.

Four years ago I received a letter from a woman who attended a breast cancer awareness talk I had given. Since the topic was breast cancer, her husband thought it was for women and elected not to attend. She filled him in on information new to her, including the risk for men. By afternoon, he was sitting in his physician’s office being scheduled for a biopsy.

After his wife shared information on male breast cancer, he did a breast self exam, found a lump, called his doctor and got a walk in appointment. It was malignant, early stages. He successfully underwent surgery and treatment. And as she shared in her letter, “he knows he will die someday, but not today and not from breast cancer. Thank you.”

I saw him months later. He thanked me and then the reserved retired farmer said, “But I won’t wear pink.” His wife, shaking her head, added “None of us do.” Whether she was referring to their family, community or generation, I did not ask. It did not matter.

Cancer is more prevalent than you think

One in two men and one in three women will have a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. Lung cancer (November – white ribbon) and colon cancer (March – dark blue) remain the leading cancers for both men and women. Then it is breast cancer (October – pink) for women and prostate cancer (September – light blue) for men.

Although whatever shared genetic link runs through my family has avoided identification, I don’t doubt research will one day uncover one. Until then, I’ll remain diligent and think before I pink.  Pink will be the color that reminds me to remain respectful of all cancers.

Kansas City Hospice

Kansas City HospiceJudy Waechter is a noted speaker in the Kansas City area. Judy speaks on a variety of medical topics geared toward the general public and to healthcare professionals. Working with Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care for the past several years, Judy works to expand knowledge about compassionate care and end of life options.


  1. Jean Slack on October 26, 2018 at 9:13 am

    Very heartfelt!!!!!

  2. Jennifer Howe on February 19, 2019 at 9:56 am

    What a well thought out, well written article. My mom has strong emotions on this topic. When my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer (glioblastoma multiforme, not operable) in July 2000, many people made comments or wrote notes that said things like “You will beat this!” or “Get well soon”. They just didn’t understand. At all. He was 53 years old at the time. I saw a beautiful article written by John McCain’s daughter, after her dad’s diagnosis. She was struggling with the same issues. It is so important to be careful with our words and try to understand each person’s perspective as much as possible, while also respecting privacy. It’s such a difficult, yet important, thing to navigate. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and expertise.

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