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Bif Naked: In defence of breast cancer month

CELIA KRAMPIEN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

It may surprise you to learn that my favourite colour is pink.

Growing up in the eighties, before I morphed into a tattooed punk rocker, I loved My Little Pony and Strawberry Shortcake, my pink bedroom walls and pink ballet tights. But these days, my love of pink embraces something else: the pink ribbon.

The symbol for breast-cancer research, awareness, patients and survivors, the pink ribbon has become ubiquitous. It's everywhere, from breakfast cereal to ballpoint pens. And that makes me proud.

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There is, of course, plenty of criticism about the pink ribbon and what it stands for. It's overrepresented, some will say, overshadowing other important causes. It's associated with an industry motivated by profit and greed, others argue, rather than with the many women whose lives are touched by this disease.

I'm not here to argue that some of these claims aren't true. But I am here to tell you that I love the pink ribbon and what it stands for.

Ever since I got my first (pink, as it happens) training bra in Grade 5, I have been what I call "tit aware." (As kids, we liked calling them "tits" because our parents disapproved of the word, even more than "boobs.")

My developing body gave me a sense of solidarity with every other blossoming girl at Stonewall Elementary. I was becoming an adult. An adult woman. An adult woman with boobs.

I figured out pretty quickly that society was obsessed with breasts – mine and everyone else's. I quickly learned that my boobs set me apart from the boys and even from the skinny girls, and it became part of how everyone saw me, and how I began to see myself and self-identify as an adolescent.

But when you get breast cancer, boobs aren't about femininity or sex any more. They are at the centre of a fight for your life, and it's terrifying.

This year alone, it is predicted that 24,400 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in Canada. That's about 67 women each day. And, according to the Canadian Cancer Society, 5,000 women will die fighting it. That's 14 women every single day.

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When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, I felt struck down in the prime of my life and at the height of my career. I wondered when I was going to die, not if. I felt alone. I was scared.

But something began to give me hope. As I connected with other women fighting the disease, or recovering from it, I began to notice that many women did, in fact, survive.

It seemed like everyone in the waiting room at the cancer hospital had a pink ribbon pinned on their sweaters or hats. Many of their family members did too. We were surrounded by pink. Pink-ribbon clothes, pink-ribbon bags, pink-ribbon coffee mugs, pink-ribbon pens. They were like a gang and the pink ribbon was their colour.

I wanted one, too, and once I pinned the small, satin ribbon to my hoodie, the other patients suddenly weren't so put off by my severe black hair and death-metal T-shirts. They sat beside me, opened up to me, talked with me. They accepted me. And I felt included.

For this skate-punk tattooed girl, it was empowering to embrace the pink ribbon. I felt hopeful and uplifted. I wore pink-ribbon-embroidered tuques, baseball hats, athletic socks and even had underpants with pink ribbons all over them. Everyone around me loved it, but I loved it more.

I didn't know it at first but I needed the pink ribbon. I needed it to guide me through the scary, isolating experience it is to have cancer. Because it brought me together with other women going through the same thing. I believe I was more successful as a patient because of this sisterhood.

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Now, cancer-free for five years, I am still passionate about the pink ribbon, even though it and all the "pinking" of breast cancer have come under much scrutiny and criticism.

In the award-winning Canadian documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc., filmmaker Léa Pool makes a compelling case against some breast-cancer charities, events and marketing campaigns. She exposes how big-business marketing campaigns (everyone from Nike to the Canadian Mint to Ms. Pac Man) are selling out breast-cancer patients, making money off our cancers.

The San Francisco-based group Breast Cancer Action even calls Breast Cancer Awareness Month "Breast Cancer Industry Month." It charges that some corporate sponsors benefit financially from increased screening for breast cancer or produce carcinogenic chemicals. BCAction calls for policy changes and raises awareness that social injustices – political, economic and racial inequalities – lead to disparities in breast-cancer outcomes.

But not all breast-cancer work can be characterized this way. Here in Canada, for example, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation actively works toward getting screening and education to women in remote communities and to marginalized populations, and helps women in chemotherapy get funding for transportation and child care and access to programs and research in exercise, yoga, meditation and nutrition.

The pink ribbon may be demonized by some, and perhaps in some cases rightfully so, but let's not ignore what else it represents: solidarity, hope, survival. The pink ribbon helped inspire even me to believe that I would survive.

And, so far, I have.

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Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Bif Naked is an international recording artist, cancer survivor, poet and activist currently working on her first book with HarperCollins. Loving and living in Vancouver and Paris, simultaneously. You can follow her on Twitter @bifnaked

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