Sunday 25 October 2009

The problem with pink.

At the beginning of this month, I opened my weekend paper to be met with a photograph of Martine McCutcheon and Jessica Taylor posing in pink Betty Boop T-shirts for Asda’s Tickled Pink campaign. ‘Cheers to pink ladies,’ chirped the headline, above a paragraph describing them as looking ‘sensational’ as they ‘joined the fight against breast cancer.’

‘That’ll teach me for buying The Mirror,’ I thought, before remembering that, of course, October = breast cancer awareness month. And breast cancer awareness month = a whole 31 days of everything even remotely aimed at women being turned flamingo pink.

Last year, I opted out of breast cancer awareness month. What with the odd combination of chemo doing its bone-crunching worst and the excitement of my brother’s wedding, it completely passed me by. (It’s amazing the kind of things you can ignore when you’re ill. Have you heard about this Barack Obama fella?) In the years pre-Bullshit, though, I would always get involved; wearing a ribbon on my lapel, buying pink iced buns from M&S and sponsoring whoever was doing something for the cause. Because, well, that’s what us women do, right?

But what I can’t say with any honesty is that breast cancer awareness month ever made me any more aware of my breasts than it did the fact that, during October, the pages of my favourite magazines are routinely filled with more pink products than you can shake a lipstick at. Maybe that’s because I always assumed breast cancer to be the kind of issue my Mum ought to be more worried about than I did. Maybe it’s because, despite all the know-the-offside-rule, down-a-pint-in-15-seconds bravado, I’m actually a girly girl at heart and quite enjoyed all the pinkness. Either way, as far as I was concerned, October was about little more serious than adding the odd pink-tinged impulse-buy to my shopping trips, while enjoying the smugness of knowing that a portion of the proceeds would go to charity.

Coming into this breast cancer awareness month with a perspective skewed by The Bullshit, however, I found my opinions on the campaign changing. And granted, it took losing my tit, my hair and my fertility to make me realise it, but didn’t October ought to be about more than retail therapy?

I once read a piece by Germaine Greer bemoaning the fact that pink is so obviously used to denote a cause predominantly relating to women. But I can’t say that the use of pink in breast cancer campaigns riles me in the same way. Any campaign needs its colour, just as prostate cancer campaigns are usually blue, and environmental issues tend to be green. Rather, my fear is whether the ubiquity of pink in breast cancer is excluding as many people as it’s embracing? Because let’s face it, people: goths get breast cancer too.

Now I’m more Supremes than Slipknot, but when I was diagnosed, I was as alienated by the pinkwash as I was by the blanket insistence that breast cancer is an ‘older-women’s disease’. For me, the problem with pink was – and continues to be – the way it is used to enforce on breast cancer the stereotypical connotations of feel-good-factor girliness, cutesy prettiness and just-us-girls fun. But what if that’s just not your style? I can’t help but think that, for a significant portion of the women – and men, let’s not forget – around the word who’ve been affected by breast cancer, October must be as sickening as Barbie puking Pepto-Bismol onto a bed of crimson carnations.

Hell, even I – who keeps The X Factor on series link and can recite the complete script of Pretty In Pink – have had a taste of how they must feel. You might remember me blogging about my experience of this year’s Cancer Research Race For Life. Standing solo at the start line with S Club 7’s Reach booming out of the speakers, the only head-to-toe black-clothed woman in a sea of pink tutus, cowboy hats and feather boas, I felt as conspicuous in my surroundings as I had in a chemo room filled with sixtysomething women. It was like some sort of terrifying giant hen weekend, and I couldn’t help but feel like an emo at a Take That concert.

As I wheezed my way round the 5k course, suffocated both by the lung capacity of a small rodent and the cloud of pinkness that engulfed me, I wished there was another way for me to do it; a way that wouldn’t force my round-pegged frame into such a square hole. And therein lies the problem with breast cancer awareness month: the pink approach, successful as it undoubtedly is, doesn’t work for everybody. And nobody, as far as I’m aware, is catering for the ‘alternative’ crowd.

Breast cancer awareness month has become a lazy marketer’s dream. And, by turning an important campaign into a fashion-and-shopping-centred celebration, they’re getting away with pink murder. Being diagnosed with breast cancer didn’t make me identify with Martine McCutcheon or Jessica Taylor. It didn’t turn me into a fan of S Club 7, or encourage me to shop for pink eyeshadow. It didn’t make me want to fill my wardrobe with pink clothes. I didn’t want to be empowered by breast cancer – I wanted to be angry about it. I wanted to sulk and swear and listen to Radiohead. I wanted to paint it black, not be ‘in the pink’.

All that said, there remains a pink ribbon on the pocket of my denim jacket. And I’ll continue to raise money for cancer charities. But in doing it, I’ll also be encouraging those charities – and the people who market them – to invest some effort into catering for the breast-cancer-affected men and women for whom pink just isn’t their colour. 

Thursday 15 October 2009

How I found my lump.

P often gets ribbed for his role in this blog. ‘Fucking hell, mate,’ his friends will say. ‘You come off well don’t you?’ And they’re right; he does. But that’s because it’s all true. P is every bit as wonderful as I eulogise in these posts. He’s loving, considerate, sexy and a damn good laugh – and it was thanks to him that I discovered my tumour. (You should also know that he snores louder than a Boeing 747, farts when I’m spooning him and is terrifyingly competitive to the point where I’m considering burning our Scrabble set.) 

I often wonder – were it not for P, and the play fight we were having on our bed during which he grabbed hold of my left tit – whether I ever would have known about my lump? And were it not for the spectacularly show-stopping fall I had in Debenhams the week previous, landing on my chest after tripping on a slippy floor in unsteady heels, would I have been as aware of my bruised tits as I was when P went in for the play-fight-winning grab? (Told you he was competitive.) 

I know there’s no use in going over these things. The lump was found. The lump was dealt with. End of. But, much as Mr Marbles used to chastise me for it, I can’t help but speculate – in some kind of Sliding Doors-esque parallel universe in which the above paragraph didn’t happen and the lump was never found – whether I’d now be dead. Because, given the size and spread of The Bullshit when we did discover it, you can’t help but presume that the long-haired me wouldn’t have been around to write this post. 

Today is European Breast Health Day, part of the wider breast cancer awareness month: the October-long, couldn’t-miss-it-if-you-tried, more-ubiquitous-than-Kate-Price campaign to make women – and men, let’s not forget – more aware of their chests. (But I’ll save that rant for another post.) And, in the spirit of getting to know your breasts, there’s been a #breastcancerawareness tag floating about Twitter, in which girls have been taking photos of their boobs and posting them on the site. 

Party-pooping ruiner that I am, I refused to participate, given that (a) I can’t help but wonder whether this Twitter-wide tit-flash was thought up by some cancer-ignorant deviant more interested in perving over the collective cleavages of the interweb than promoting an important campaign; (b) I seriously doubt that every lass who’s posted a picture of her assets then self-examined said lady lumps immediately afterwards; and (c) one flash of my, um, ‘alternative’ puppies online would be enough to bring about the prompt demise of the Twitter phenomenon for good. And so, bowing out of the fun, I instead promised to do my #breastcancerawareness bit another way. Which is why I’ve decided to tell the story of how I found my lump – something I’ve never previously written about on Alright Tit. (Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.) 

Pre-Bullshit, I was under no illusions of how important it was to self-examine. The only trouble was, I never knew whether I was doing it right. You read all these stories of women having found their lumps in the shower, when applying sun cream, or while trying on bras. And, frankly, I don’t know how they do it. I would never have found my lump that way. Because, until P made me aware of the lychee-like irregularity beside my nipple, I wouldn’t have had a clue what I was looking for. I may still not know what I’d be looking for. 

All the advice tells you to look for changes in your breasts. Which necessitates getting to know them in the same way that you know your hair; noticing every split end, difference in texture and the point at which your highlighted roots have gone from Kate-Moss-acceptable to Courtney-Love-urgent. The kind of stuff we all know instinctively – and with which we’re far more familiar than we are with the state of our boobs. Which is, of course, completely ridiculous, given that your hair can’t do you much damage. (Or, at least, it can’t until someone shows you the photos ten years later.) 

And the truth is, in the months prior to The Bullshit, I’d done nothing but look for changes in my breasts – but for an altogether different reason than cancer. Instead, I’d stand topless in front of the mirror every couple of days, studying variations in my nipples in the apparent hope that it’d be a better pregnancy indicator than anything ClearBlue had to offer. And, in all honesty, my boobs were changing. My left tit – always marginally bigger than my right – looked ever so slightly more weighty than usual, and my nipples seemed to look different every time I blinked. But with cancer as far off my radar as attempting a moon landing, I never would have concluded that the changes were down to anything other than the business of getting knocked up. 

My point with this post isn’t to tell you how to check your breasts for lumps. Despite my experience in the area, I’m still no more qualified than a rhesus monkey to advise you on how it’s done. Because, even though I prod and poke at my right tit more often than is becoming of a lady, I still know that every time I’m at a hospital appointment, the doctor I’m seeing will always check my breast for me. (And yes, that was purposely singular. My fake tit is never examined, as though it were as far removed from a breast as a Rubik’s cube, Cornish pasty or a flask of coffee.) So instead, I’m going to direct you here, to Channel 4’s excellent Embarrassing Illnesses microsite and, specifically, their step-by-step video on self-examining. (Twitter pervs will be pleased to hear that it features a topless chick and, rather wonderfully, you can also download it to your phone so you can fondle your tits on the move. Fifty quid to the first person to self-examine on the Jubilee Line.) All I can do is tell you what my lump was like, and hope – in the unlikely circumstance that you ever cop a feel of some suspicious stuff, too – that something you’ve read in this post might jog your memory and give you the required kick up the arse to introduce your lumpy tit to your GP. 

‘Oi, that hurt, you bastard,’ I whined to P as our play-fight came to a sudden halt after his victorious boob-grab. 
‘Really? Because it didn’t feel right either,’ he said, sitting up abruptly and facing me sternly in the means-business manner of someone about to begin a monologue with ‘I think it’s time we had a talk.’ 
I whipped off my bra and, with my index and middle fingers, prodded the firm swelling to the left of my nipple that, in a blindfolded test, could easily have been a lump of hardened Play-Doh. It was painful, yes, but I wasn’t sure whether that was because of my fall in Debenhams, P’s over-enthusiastic grasp or the lump itself. It seemed to be slightly moveable, too, but then I could easily have been kidding myself of that, convincing myself that I’d previously read that cysts moved about and tumours didn’t. 

‘Fuckfuckfuck, there is a lump,’ I said to P, grabbing his right hand. ‘Here. Feel it.’ 
‘Shit, there is,’ he confirmed, surprised, as though he hadn’t really believed me before. His startled eyes fixed on mine in a way that hinted at confusion over whether to suggest the obvious or reassure me that it’d be nothing to worry about. ‘Just get yourself to the doctor’s first thing,’ he advised. ‘Whatever it is, there’s nothing we can do about it now.’ 
‘I will,’ I assured him. ‘Maybe she’ll even tell me I’m pregnant.’ 

She didn’t.

Friday 9 October 2009


While writing this, I’ve had Power Of A Woman by Eternal stuck in my head. Which, somewhat tragically, rather illustrates my point, given that I opened up my laptop to indulge in a rare, aren’t-women-great type post. 

It’s not really like me to rave about my fellow gender. Much as I’m precious about my shoes and my frocks and my Sex and the City box set, I’m also the kind of girl with an iPod full of male vocalists, who tends not to vote for other women on reality TV shows and who, on careful inspection of this week’s free magazines, will definitely be sticking with ShortList over Stylist

I’m not proud of this stuff, and it’s a position I’m trying to coach myself out of. As a teen, I would often haughtily declare that I had more in common with the boys at my school than the girls, and spent years positioning myself as ‘one of the lads’, only to be periodically yanked back into more girly ways by the lure of Wonderbras, body glitter, Gary v Robbie hair-pulling and fruity alcopops.

And so I’m sure I’m not the only occasional tomboy in the village to have spent a large portion of her life lurching between celebration of and embarrassment for the sisterhood. The Bullshit hasn’t helped matters. Because, seemingly inclusive as the empowering, sweep-you-along, pink-ribboned approach to breast cancer is, in truth it’s often had me feeling even more confused; simultaneously embraced and alienated. I’ve tipped from wanting support on women-only message boards to actively avoiding real-life stories in magazines; and from itching to get involved with breast cancer charities to cringeing at being forced to listen to S Club 7 as I wheezed my way around the Race For Life course. One morning I’ll want to flaunt my new – and, let’s be honest, rather spectacular – cleavage in a low-cut top; the next I’ll be so embarrassed by my falsie that I’ll hide it under high-necked layers. It’s exhausting, I tells ya.

But, just as I had to concede mid-treatment that it was okay to feel conflicting things at any one time (relief at finishing chemo yet Stockholm Syndrome once I’d been released from it), I’m going to have to apply the same here. Because, while the feather-boa’d, Gloria-Gaynor-led approach to breast cancer just isn’t my bag, the supportive, sisterly, we’ll-get-you-through-it attitude most definitely is. And nowhere was that more apparent than at Breast Cancer Care’s annual fashion show, where I volunteered this week. 

‘Oh heck, here we go,’ I thought, looking at the list of celebrities due to appear at the event and sensing the atmosphere of high-pitched excitement as flocks of eager women waited at the doors of Grosvenor House, like a Friday-night bingo queue on acid. I was as nervous as an adolescent boy on a Blackpool hen night as the women descended into the ballroom in packs, armed with purses and champagne tokens. For a moment I wondered what the hell I’d got myself into. As it turned out, however, it wasn’t the hen-nightmare I’d expected – and rather, a dream of an event which was a credit to every woman (and the few men) involved. 

‘I never get through The Show without crying at least three times,’ said my volunteer team leader before the event got underway. I assumed she must just be one of those girls who likes Jennifer Aniston rom-coms or listens to tearjerkers on Magic FM. ‘It’s the real-life stories that do it,’ she continued. ‘They show them on the screen and they have me in floods every time.’ And she was right, of course – they were emotional… but they weren't the thing to make me cry. Because, as well as the punters who’d turned up for afternoon tea (or, later, a four-course dinner) in aid of Breast Cancer Care, there were the folk who weren’t just there to support the charity – but also their friends or relatives who were among the 25 Bullshit-affected models taking to the catwalk. And that was what got me. 

In truth, it’s what always gets me. Not the stories of diagnosis or surgery or treatment or breaking the news to those whose hearts it’ll shatter. Instead, as I took the best seat in the house, peering over the balcony into the ballroom below, I crumbled. Not for the amazing models – each of whom had come back from their own devastating diagnosis to flip a middle finger to what cancer had tried (and failed) to do to their still-gorgeous looks. But rather for the beaming, whooping, pride-swelled friends and family who were there to applaud every strut, and celebrate the achievements of the Bullshit-beating beauties before them. (Try saying that after you’ve used your champagne tokens.) The very same kind of exceptional folk who gave me a piggy-back through my scrap with The Bullshit. And so there on the balcony, my carefully honed disguise of cynicism unceremoniously fell away, like a weepy Scooby Doo villain (Curses! I’d have succeeded if it weren’t for those pesky cheering women!), and I turned from haughty, feminist-distancing ladette to fully paid-up, honoured member of this supreme sisterhood. 

And yeah, I might prefer my empowerment to a soundtrack that’s more Aretha than Shania, in a wardrobe that’s more punk than pink. But that doesn’t mean I have to pass up on liberation altogether for the sake of playing the grumpy geezerbird. There is a middle ground here. It’s okay to watch the football while painting your toenails. It’s okay to call yourself an independent woman yet hate the Destiny’s Child song. And it’s okay to wear a pretty pink ribbon on your leather biker jacket. All that said, I’m off to lock myself in a room with OK Computer. Any more Power Of A Woman and I’ll be using my pink ribbon as a noose.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Sick note.

‘Wouldn’t it be ironic,’ commented my mate Leaks, ‘if, after having cancer, it was swine flu that finished you off.’
‘Yeah, cheers Leaks. The thought had crossed my mind, ta.’
‘Anyway,’ she continued. ‘I thought swine flu was a myth.’
‘Believe me, love, this ain’t no myth,’ I texted back from beneath my duvet. ‘I’ve now put my shoulder out from coughing so much, and I feel like Rik Waller’s sitting on my chest.’

‘Yeah, but did you really have swine flu?’ asked, ooh, everyone I’ve encountered since swapping pyjamas for my regular wardrobe.
‘Yes,’ I tell them. ‘I really had swine flu. And it wasn’t all that much nicer than chemo,’ I add, for shock-tactic, swift-change-of-the-subject (and kind-of-skirting-the-truth) emphasis.

Spreading faster even than H1N1 itself, it seems, has been not just swine flu paranoia, but the cynicism that comes with it. And yeah, I’m sure there are thousands of work-shirkers out there who have used The Media’s Favourite Story as an excuse to stay behind closed curtains for a day. And, y’know, fair enough. Hell, pre-cancer, I might even have been one of them, advocate as I am (sorry, boss, was) of the occasional ‘mental health day’. (Mum used to grant me one every sports day, and I remain as grateful today as I was while watching Grease in my front room as my classmates wheezed round the school running track in The World's Worst PE Kit: a red T-shirt with navy-blue knickers. I dare say it was the fashion as much as the activity that forced me into pulling a Ferris Bueller.)

But this, make no mistake about it, wasn't a mental-health break; it was swine flu. Horrible, feverish, wheezy, painful, shivery, raw-throated swine flu. Because really, might people genuinely think that, after eleven months in sweaty PJs rather than at my desk, I’ve not quite had my fill of sick days for, ooh, the next five millennia? I can’t even force myself to watch daytime TV when I’m off ill these days, so brought-to-puke am I at even the slightest hint of a reference to Jeremy Kyle. (Mind you, that might also have been the case pre-Bullshit.)

‘Seriously though,’ said Leaks during our lunch hour today. ‘You must have been bricking it.’
‘Well yeah, I was. All this ‘underlying health problems’ stuff. Christ, I’m Mrs Underlying Health Problems.’
‘Still, you can take anything on these days can’t ya?’ she replied. ‘Cancer, swine flu…’
‘Yeah, bring it on,’ I said triumphantly, strutting along a double-yellow line as Leaks suddenly hoiked me up onto the pavement by my elbow.
‘Bloody hell, love,’ she said as I belatedly noticed an angry-looking LCV raging past. ‘What, so the cancer and swine flu couldn’t do it, and now you’re trying the white-van route instead?’
‘Shit, yeah,’ I mumbled, remembering that having cancer hadn’t, in fact, made me invincible.
‘You nobhead,’ teased Leaks.
‘Meh, whatever. Bring it on,’ I repeated.