If you're here, you know my love of symbols. Before my husband was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma in October, I sometimes sported a pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness since it's a cause I like to support. However, it wasn't until I had a reason to wear a violet ribbon that I truly understood the point of awareness symbols.
In college, I had a professor rant one day about the pointlessness of wearing awareness ribbons (as half the class sat wearing them since it was Breast Cancer Awareness Month and they were being sold on campus). He criticized it as a way to show off instead of a way to draw attention to a cause. He reasoned that all the money spent on making awareness items could be that much more money given to a cause. I did that day, and still do, somewhat agree with his points. However, I think there's much, much more to the story.
When my husband was diagnosed, I felt very alone. Here I was, 27 and my husband 26. Within a matter of hours, we had to make decisions about our future such as if we would ever want to undergo IVF if chemo made him sterile, which oncologist he wanted to see and if we would go through with the purchase of the home we were building. When he called to tell me the bad news, I don't remember how I ended up in a chair in the lobby of my office. I sort of fell into it, not attaching the words to our lives. "They think it's lymphoma." Boom. I watched other office workers walk by the windows. I had been one of them a few minutes ago.
It took me a long time to want to be part of the cancer community. I cried during my husband's first chemo, watching as the drugs dripped down a long tube into the port in his chest. We were given materials...lots of lighthouse imagery, soft colors and line drawings of how to live with cancer. Not anything I wanted to face.
Eventually, though, I started looking for a way to own my role as a caretaker and spouse of a cancer patient. I exhausted my vacation and sick leave almost immediately with his two surgeries and first chemo. His mom doesn't work on Fridays, so she offered to take him to treatments. Other family members and friends stepped in to take him too. There was nothing worse that trying to concentrate at work knowing that I couldn't be there for him. And so I started to wear a red rubber bracelet from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society . It might sound silly, but it was a constant reminder of his fight and made me feel like I was there in spirit when I couldn't be there in person. I gave them to our family members and friends, who all wear them too. Whenever we're all together or I see a photo of someone wearing their bracelet, I feel a connection. We're all in this together.
Since the red bracelets are a symbol of the LLS, I also purchased buttons specific to Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Friends and family also sport these, some with violet ribbons attached, to show support and solidarity. I've been asked about mine several times, leading not only to discussion about this specific cancer, but also to recommendations for diet and exercise, offers to visit and promises to take better care of oneself by not avoiding routine exams.
Right before Neil's first surgery, a biopsy and removal of lymph nodes in his neck, family friends stopped over with a St. Christopher medal. While we are not Catholic and do not attend church, the gesture and meaning was appreciated. "He's the patron saint of long journeys," the husband said, "and you're about to go on one." Since Neil could not wear it comfortably during chemo, I held it in my hand as I sat on the hospital bed with him.
It's been some time since those rubber awareness bracelets were at the peak of popularity.And some may misunderstand my wearing of a button and ribbon as a way to get attention or show off chartiable giving. And though you'll never find me at mass, I still take out the St. Christopher medal from time to time, reflecting on our journey...something I'm sure people balk at.
I hope my experience will show others that these symbols are so much more than a fashion statement or attention-grabber. They are a connection and a comfort.