My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 46. It was the beginning of 1982 and I was in my first year of high school at an all-girls boarding school in Connecticut.
My mother was prone to the dramatic. That first night during dinner my father stoically listened as she talked about how she was going to die and that my father would get remarried and we kids better watch the new wife and make sure she didn’t take everything.
For the first few weeks she continued with the “I’m dying and I can’t get up” talk. We all tried to be understanding. After all, she did have cancer.
We also begged her to stop smoking and she almost agreed, but then her doctor said, “As much as I want you to stop smoking too, this probably isn’t the best time to do it.” He said her body was already under so much stress that quitting smoking would be too major of a change and would be too much for her to handle. Do they still tell cancer patients not to quit smoking?
Eventually my mother found her strength. “This cancer is not going to get me, not yet anyway. I’ll beat it.” Things started looking up. She ended her treatment six months early, and was in remission for many years.
When the cancer came back, she was in her late fifties and living in Pakistan again. My mother and I had recently reconciled after two years of not talking to each other. She had “disowned” me because I came out as a lesbian. She had a really hard time with the lesbian stuff, but that’s another story.
We were speaking on the phone, one of our regular calls. I asked her if she needed anything from the US. She had recently had a mastectomy which she refused to do the first time around.
“Well,” she said. “I’m having a hard time finding a prosthetic bra here, so if you could send one of those that would be good. And a wig. I’m losing my hair.”
Trying to make her feel hopeful, I responded. “You know there are a lot of breast cancer awareness efforts and the government is putting more resources into breast cancer research so I’m sure it will be easy enough to find a prosthetic bra.”
And her response? “I know you’re a lesbian, but don’t become a feminist on me now.”
My first reaction was surprise—that she thought I might not already be a feminist. But what was even more astonishing was the fact that she, a woman with cancer and only one breast was frowning upon the “feminist” position that more money for breast cancer research is a good thing.
Back then, I was speechless. But now, I know exactly what I would say and do.
I would tell her about the work we support at the Women’s Foundation of California through strategic grantmaking. I would talk to her about Breast Cancer Action or the Community Water Center or the Grayson Neighborhood Council or the Environmental Health Coalition and any number of groups that are concerned about environmental causes of cancer and the health of women and girls, our families and our communities.
Even if my mother were alive today, I know she probably would not keep up with technology so sending her website links or published articles would not do much good. My mother was a people person and to engage her, it would have been best to have introduced her to community leaders. I would have invited Barbara Brenner from Breast Cancer Action, or Susana De Anda and Laurel Firestone from the Community Water Center or any number of community-based leaders home for dinner to meet my mother. I’m certain that if she had met any of the hundreds of women in our larger community and heard about the good work that some of these leaders and organizations are doing, my mother might have called herself a feminist too. As an avid fan of Yoplait’s strawberry yogurt, my mother would have been interested in learning about Breast Cancer Action’s campaign around the risks of consuming dairy products containing rBGH, the artificial hormone given to dairy cows, which may increase people’s risk of cancer. The organization’s campaign “Yoplait: Put a Lid on It” was successful in getting Yoplait to make its yogurt rBGH-free. Breast Cancer Action is now focusing its campaign on Eli Lilly which is currently the sole manufacturer of rBGH.
And that’s what I call movement building, respecting people’s opinions when they differ from our own, while moving them towards a compelling vision, one person at a time.
We’re fortunate here in California to have such a large community of leaders. We meet these leaders every day through their work, through their commitment and through their passion. And if you’re reading this, you too are part of that community.
Surina Khan is Vice President of Programs for the Women’s Foundation of California. A version of this post appeared on Surina’s blog.