After Pink Ribbon Blues came out, Bill Noren periodically sent me photos, news items, and other tidbits about pink ribbon culture that concerned him. Several of the images and photos that are sprinkled throughout the Pink Ribbon Blues Blog and in the ever-expanding photo gallery came from him. Last Spring, Bill sent me some news stories about Heather Beyer and told me how it represented, for him, a turn in public culture that not only glorified survivorship but actually hid the real difficulties people faced. I said: “Why don’t you write about it for Pink Ribbon Blues?” He did. Here is Bill Noren’s essay: “Loss and Remembering: The Story of Heather Beyer.”
Last Spring, I came upon a sad story that stuck with me for some time. A young woman named Heather Beyer died on April 30, 2011 at the age of 27 from an aggressive form of breast cancer. Though Heather was young, she touched many lives during her grievously short lifetime. The story I recount here comes mainly from the Orange County Register, which followed Heather’s story and the support she received.
Heather Beyer was a cheerleader for a professional sports team, the Los Angeles Angels. In 2009 she began coaching cheerleading at Tesoro High School. When she married Deputy Nate Beyer of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department soon after, Heather had nine cheerleaders as her bridesmaids. Only five months later Heather was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. She received treatment and everyone in her midst hoped for remission. Then, she died. It still breaks my heart to think about it. Young. Newly married. The picture of health. It’s tragic.
Heather’s story was sad enough, but when I read articles about her experience and saw the numerous photos and slideshows that accompanied them I felt even worse. I saw a sick young woman in a headscarf in the midst of festive crowds, pink ribbons, and fund-raising banners. I wondered how she felt. Had she been uplifted by the fanfare? Did anyone around her understand what she was really going through? Did she know she wasn’t going to survive this ordeal? I cannot know what Heather thought, but I do know what I thought. I was sad and repelled.
In this photo Heather was surrounded by dozens of happy faces. There was a bake sale, tents, balloons. It looked very festive. You wouldn’t know that a desperately sick young woman was suffering from a serious disease. The group photo was taken beneath two banners: “The Fun Bags” and “Making A Difference.” Was the stylized image of the young woman surrounded with pink stars supposed to be Heather? Were they holding a bake sale to save her fun bags? I’m still stunned at the vulgarity of the image and the blatant, discordant festival spirit of the event.
Heather seemed to be the duly appointed cancer célèbre. There seemed to be a clamor to be photographed with her. Did she sign autographs? I wondered if the celebrants really understood the seriousness of her condition.
Throughout the varied photo records Heather’s appearance changed. She became thinner, lost the color in her face, and eventually required an oxygen tube and wheelchair. She continued to smile. She was surrounded by others who did the same. When I look at the pictures of Heather, I can’t help but wonder if she was really up to attending such merry undertakings. I can’t imagine the conflicting and heartbreaking pressure to have to look cheerful and happy in the face of such monstrous incongruity.
Here’s what Heather, strong and athletic, said about undergoing chemotherapy treatment,
“It’s been rough,” she said. “It’s a lot more taxing on the body than I expected. I expected to be more functional at a much quicker rate. But I’m exhausted all the time. I can’t really stand ever. I constantly feel like I’m going to get sick…”
People handle chemotherapy and other treatments differently depending on a whole lot of things. But could it be that Heather also did not expect her treatment to be so taxing, exhausting, and sickening because society doesn’t really show that side of cancer? Especially breast cancer?
Even after Heather died her memorial was just as festive as the events that surrounded her diagnosis and treatment. The OC Register reported:
“Six cheerleaders from Newport Harbor High, where Beyer had been a coach from 2004 to 2008, welcomed more than 350 mourners to the memorial that began at 1 p.m. They made pink T-shirts, a glittery “H” and Beyer’s middle name “Faith,” over their left-breast pockets. They handed out programs fronted by Beyer’s photo from her November 2008 wedding and asked everyone to sign pages that will form a scrapbook.”
I get it. Cheerleaders are cheerful. I don’t begrudge them that. But still, it seems almost a requirement these days to parade around with pink “for the cure” activities while populating them with designated cancer celebs like Heather to somehow make them seem legitimate.
I can’t think about Heather Beyer’s publicly portrayed experience in pink culture without remembering my own mother who died of breast cancer in 1986 (pre-pink dynasty). If my mother were alive today she would have been mortified by the weird and vacuous breast cancer culture. She would’ve eschewed the mantles of both “warrior” or “victim.” In a million years I could not imagine my mom wearing a pink ribbon. Part of this is generational. She wasn’t of the generation that wore buttons, badges, ribbons, or rubber bracelets. And she certainly wouldn’t have affixed a pink magnet to her ’68 Oldsmobile Cutlass. Like others of her time, Mom kept her thoughts to herself. But as a nurse she knew all too well the grim statistics of her disease.
Times have changed. I’m not suggesting that breast cancer should go back in the closet, that people shouldn’t rally for one another in support or raise money, or even that symbols are a bad thing. But something strange happened with the pink cause. It must be very difficult to avoid the vortex of the “be happy!” demands of the Pink Ribbon Culture. At my mother’s funeral we didn’t make any scrap books or wear glitter. It wasn’t our way. We all just cried.
Post Script by Gayle Sulik:
Marcia Smith of The Orange County Register wrote a story about Heather Beyer’s last days, “Cancer hits Angels Strike Force member,” that is a lucid account of the devastating realities of metastatic disease. It is, as Breean Carter shares in a comment below, not “sugar coated…glorified…[or] full of ‘pink sparkle.’” Instead it conveys a deeply personal tragedy, one that is marred by a failure of the medical system, a system that has failed far too many.
Chief medical and scientific officer of The American Cancer Society, Dr. Otis Brawley, exposes in How We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Ranks About Being Sick in America, that there are numerous cases of doctors who choose treatments that are not based on demonstrated scientific evidence, and hospitals and pharmaceutical companies that seek patients to treat even if they are not actually ill.
Where does this scenario leave people who are dealing with metastatic disease?
In The New York Times article, “A Pink-Ribbon Race, Years Long,” which spoke about Elizabeth Edwards’ death from breast cancer and the limitations of medical progress, statements from notable medical doctors acknowledged that, despite the fact that stage 4 patients “enjoy a higher quality of life than patients did in the past, because treatments are better focused and have fewer side effects,” these treatments add only an “incremental amount to the length of life.” There has been a 20 percent rise in cancer survivorship overall from 2001 to 2007, yet The New York Times also reports statistics from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute which show that “the death rate from cancer [all cancers combined]…has stayed virtually the same as it was in 1950.”
We must do better. For all of the Heather Beyer’s of the world. If pink sparkles are the pathway to that future, I know many cynics who would easily jump on board. That said, identifying the unintended consequences of any approach to breast cancer is vital to moving forward. That is the only way to calibrate our efforts efficiently, effectively, and with the honesty and compassion that everyone touched by cancer deserves.
My deepest appreciation to the advocates, cancer rebels, general readers, and friends and family members of Heather Beyer, who shared their feelings in the comments section below. My condolences to all of those who loved Heather and continue to grieve her death.
Bill Noren lives in New Jersey and works for an insurance company. He is also a professional musician. He can be found jamming on his drums nearly every weekend somewhere in New Jersey with his jazz group, The Bill Noren Group. You may leave comments for Bill Noren here, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.