Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Awareness Matters

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Childhood Cancer shares September with Sickle Cell, and Ovarian Cancer.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. It's also a time set aside to be aware of Down's syndrome, Pregnancy and Infant Loss, and bullying.

There's more. There are more causes in September and October. There are ten other months, all of them asking for our awareness. The list of things to be aware of keeps on growing.

I know a lot of people who like me, have been touched by childhood cancer. One of the sentiments that I've been privy to as of late is that many parents whose children died from cancer are sick and tired of awareness. To them, it's a collective spinning of wheels. A drop in the bucket. What is needed is action. Anything less is a waste of time. People are wearing gold ribbons and sharing status updates while children are dying. People are going on with their ordinary lives while children perish.

Awareness has been getting a bad rap.

I get it. But I feel differently. The difference may lie in the way action is defined and recognized.

Everyone notices an ice bucket challenge that goes viral and raises millions of dollars for ALS, one of the scariest and confounding diseases I've ever heard of. The ice bucket challenge is everyone's idea of action. It's quintessential action.

Research money is desperately needed to find cures for many childhood cancers. Unfortunately when it comes to funding, childhood cancer could use more. A lot more. It's easy to see why action needs to look monumental. It's easy to see why anything short of a complete reversal of the status quota can seem insignificant.

When there's a grand gesture, a breakthrough, a massive protest, a medical discovery, an enormous paradigm shift, then that is an action miracle. And don't get me wrong. I'm like everyone else. I want these things. I take measurable action. I raise funds.

But I am here to say that sometimes awareness works it's magic quietly. It can go under the radar. It's like the awareness version of a whisper.

Sometimes action doesn't even look like action.

Awareness inspires the young medical student to specialize in pediatric oncology. She correctly concludes that before a person can possibly be at risk for breast cancer, multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer's disease that person needs to survive a childhood where approximately one in 280 children will develop cancer. She's learned through awareness that children are not little adults when it comes to cancer. They need their own targeted treatments and interventions. She's determined to work on that. She's resisting pressure from family and friends who think this specialty is too sad.

Awareness helps the mom of an elementary school boy who is being ostracized and left out of play and other peer activities. Until October, she wasn't aware that this is a subtle and harmful form of bullying. Bullying Awareness means she has the tools to work with the school to help her son before any more damage is done. Sometimes, bullying doesn't look like bullying.

Awareness is remembering that before the 1980s breast cancer was something that people didn't talk openly about. There was shame and secrecy surrounding this diagnosis. Breast cancer activists helped change all of that. Participating in the Avon Walk might help you or your daughter have better options for treatment - or even prevention - in the future. But not rolling your eyes at yet another pink ribbon on a box of tissues or a store window is also an important action. We lead by example.

Sometimes awareness is acknowledgement.

Autism Awareness is watching a mother struggle with an eight year old having a meltdown on the sidewalk and thinking twice before giving that mom a judgmental look. Awareness knows that an understanding smile can go a long way. A fresh bottle of water. Helping with the bags, which are strewn on the sidewalk.

Maybe a Facebook post, a ribbon or a conversation will raise awareness by dispelling myths and misinformation. Maybe that leads to an earlier diagnosis. Perhaps awareness allows you to make an offer of concrete help to someone struggling through a diagnosis, rather than the usual call if you need anything.

Awareness can be the lightening bolt, the big idea, the Empire State Building, the Presidential Proclamation.

Awareness can be also be deceptively small. It can be grass roots. It's a place where there is room for everyone. It's working for a cure for the future but also taking care of today. It's knowing that what is hard to quantify and impossible to share through social media counts. A new treatment is cause for celebration. So is a high five.

Awareness counts. Awareness is never wasted. Awareness is action.

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