The Pink and the Black: Balancing Health and Work Life

Photo Credit: © REUTERS Jonathan Ernst

The primary aim of The Pink and The Black project is to bring the voices of breast cancer survivors, their families, advocates and allies together on issues related to work life balance and overall quality of life for Black women.

The rate at which Black women die from breast cancer is higher than other racial groups, and they are are 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than white women. Only in the last several years have studies begun to look at how environmental factors impact mortality and quality of life for breast cancer survivors who have lived five or more years after their first diagnosis.

Because of this stark reality and a personal desire to know how Black women negotiate breast cancer in their daily lives, The Pink & The Black project focuses on the lived experiences of Black women in relation to the cultural norms that would affect them most, such as social expectations about being “a strong Black woman,” common views from Christian faith traditions’ about healing and the importance of faith talk, and the pink ribbon warrior messages that pervade mainstream breast cancer awareness campaigns. All of these expectations are likely to converge to influence Black women’s self-perceptions, conversations with others, and quality of life when dealing with this disease.

Annette Madlock Gatison’s personal experience with breast cancer also brings relevance to her desire to understand how other women handle the day-to-day impact of the disease and the oft-cited “search for balance” when a cancer diagnosis and treatment takes hold. She was diagnosed with two varieties of aggressive breast cancer, one in 2003 (treated in 2004) and another in 2009. Both required lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. In 2012, she had a radical mastectomy with reconstruction, which she hopes will be her last surgery. She writes:

“Ever since those first words were uttered, “you have breast cancer,” there were things I needed to know that went beyond disease specific medical facts and statistics. My mind was reeling with thoughts of, “How can I handle this? What am I supposed to say? What am I supposed to do?” Those closest to me thought I was managing quite well. I did not “look sick.” And I was considered a “strong Black woman” with “strong faith.” If anyone  were to ask how I was feeling I found it stressful to provide an answer that went beyond, “I am doing o.k.” I did not really think I was doing so well at handling the magnitude of the physical, mental, and spiritual changes brought about by those four words. But I found it hard to talk about my illness because I did not want to be perceived as complaining.

As I traversed my way through healing circles and breast cancer survivor support groups I began to see patterns in the conversations of women who were long-term (longer than five years from first diagnosis) breast cancer survivors. They oriented around strong Black womanhood, faith talk, and pink warrior metaphors. I wondered how these conversational devices helped them to cope, or kept them silent. Maybe they were like me, keeping quiet in order to look strong.”

Annette Madlock Gatison’s personal experience in, and with, breast cancer cultures led her to think about the kinds of conversations survivors engage in when they are asked about their health. They change of course depending on who the audience is (family members, friends, other survivors, healthcare providers, employers, and others). But they also change in relation to core beliefs that tend to revolve around two key issues. For Black women facing breast cancer, where they land on the pink spectrum (i.e., embracing to rejecting) is important as is their beliefs about Christian faith talk, spiritual healing and disease.

The Pink and The Black Project was designed to ask Black women breast cancer survivors how these issues influenced their self-perceptions, the views others had of them, and their ability to express their needs and concerns. Breast cancer survivorship and the lingering effects of treatment impact the balance of work, family, and overall quality of life. Yet the general notion of being a strong Black woman (as represented by Michele Obama’s photo above) also overlapped every discussion on faith and pink ribbon rhetoric. The women who participated in the project thought it necessary to share their experiences so others would not be alone in trying to figure out how to find balance in their lives while creating “a new normal” after breast cancer.

Two books are in progress that have resulted from The Pink and The Black Project. Resistance is Futile: Black Women Embracing the Pink Identity puts forward the findings from the questions related to strong Black womanhood, spirituality and Christian faith talk that intersect with the warrior metaphors of breast cancer and the pink ribbon culture. The second book, Voicing the Voiceless (Re)Shaping Social Norms in Women’s Healthcare, is a multidisciplinary anthology in response to women’s concerns about other health issues, which surfaced during the research. It brings together academic scholars, practitioners, and healthcare advocates who are concerned about other illnesses that stigmatize women into silence, such as mental illness, HIV/Aids, and domestic violence.

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