The Pink and the Black

I was diagnosed with two varieties of aggressive breast cancer, one in 2004 and another in 2009. Both required lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. In 2012 I had a radical mastectomy with reconstruction, which I hope will be my last surgery. But 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 really did not 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 (i.e., 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.

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 my personal desire to know how other Black women negotiate breast cancer in their daily lives, I started The Pink & The Black project.

Uniting my professional work in health communications with my personal interest in breast cancer allowed me to explore systematically the lived experiences of Black women in relation to the cultural norms that would affect us most when dealing with the disease. 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 are likely to converge to influence self-perceptions, conversations with others, and quality of life. How these expectations impact the ways in which Black women handle the day-to-day impact of breast cancer works in conjunction with the oft-cited “search for balance” that is a common concern in modern society.

The Pink and The Black project was designed to ask Black women breast cancer survivors how these common 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 notion of being a strong Black woman 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.

Annette Madlock Gatison, Associate Professor, Southern Connecticut State University (Health Communications)

Dr. Annette Madlock Gatison is an Associate Professor in the department of Communications at Southern Connecticut State University. She completed doctoral work in Intercultural Communication and Rhetoric at Howard University in Washington, DC in 2007; her dissertation is entitled, A Kwanzaa Idea as Religious Space: A Rhetoric of Resistance. She is also a former Howard University Preparing Future Faculty Fellow. While attending Bethel College (now University) in St. Paul, MN, she earned a Master’s degree in Communication Studies, a Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Studies, and a certificate in Post-Secondary Teaching. Dr. Madlock Gatison is a former National Women’s Studies Association and Spelman College 2009 Leadership Institute fellow. She has presented over 20 papers at national and international professional conferences. She has recently published multiple entries in the Multimedia Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World edited by Strange and Oyster, 2012;  an entry on Self-Esteem in The Encyclopedia of Identity edited by Ronald L. Jackson, II; a chapter, “Playing the Game Communicative Practices for Negotiating Politics and Preparing for Tenure” in the edited volume, Still Searching for Our Mother’s Garden (Niles and Gordon, 2011).

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.

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