Breast cancer is not a pink ribbon.

I spent the weekend watching my partner’s aunt in her last days of life. Maricela Ochoa passed on this morning around 5 a.m. after a five-year fight with breast cancer. She was 48. I knew her as cool Tia Mari, the actress, the activist, the 5’3″ spitfire with a voice the size of her native Texas, the woman who outlived her doctor’s dead-end timeline by over two years.

Sometime around midnight on Saturday, it began to piss me off that NFL players wear pink gloves and shoes, that the cable music channel displays a pink ribbon, that you can buy all kinds of things in powder pink to make a statement. I was standing in the living room at the head of Mari’s hospital bed, looking at the fissure lines on her skull that showed beneath her dark fuzz of hair. For hours she made choked, drowning sounds; the sound of barely not suffocating, of having a 5’3″ body full of malfunctioning organs. Her skin was faintly greenish-purple, as if the light around her bed were distorted. She had not eaten or had water in four days; and her mouth–with its trim, exact lips and perfect teeth–hung open. I wondered about the lines she had spoken onstage and before cameras, the slogans she chanted in antiwar protests, the countless times her mouth opened and closed in her life to give shape to the billowing ribbons of opinion, feeling, and confession that run through us all.

Whereas pink ribbons have absolutely nothing to do with cancer. Just like yellow ribbons haven’t got a damn thing to do with our kids who die in the desert; nor does the flag pin, that glorified tie tack, do enough to stop our elected leaders from sending them there. Not all symbols are created equal. I believe Tia Mari would agree with me that there is neither a factory nor a product designer in the world that can manufacture a symbol that makes us feel, in our very bones and tissues, how fragile we are. How fragile all of us are, and that our body’s inevitable termination demands the most constant and careful self-questioning about what it means to be brave, to have compassion, and exist as much as possible in a state worthwhile to other people.

I learned to write in a school that advises writers to tell every story as if to a dying person. More than ever, today I try to imagine dying: Like everybody else, I can’t take my body. I can’t take symbols. I have to go without language, my life’s biggest asset and biggest crutch. What matters then? If I am to be a victim of cancer, or some other awful and average killer, what matters is that the people whom I loved know precisely how much I loved them. That my wife is OK. That I spent enough of my time doing things that made me feel excited or passionate or humbled; that a few of those things give my family a feeling of vicarious pride. All good storytelling requires empathy of both the teller and the listener, so in my last days of life I hope I can still listen to a story. I want that story to be so colorful, so specific, so powerful, and so meaningful that I can’t tell the difference between its life and mine.

Cancer is a way that living things die–people, dogs, mice. It is a natural killer. Cancer dollars will never buy a satisfactory cure, because who is ever ready to leave? It is hard enough to smile for the dying. It is like trying to lift a house. I imagine Mari must have understood better than anyone that life is no rehearsal, and we need the most colorful, specific, powerful, and yes, meaningful, memories to relive when we are too weak and too medicated to open our eyes again.

Congrats, Mari. Your life is big. I wish I could have seen you act in your favorite play, but I’m a better person for at least having heard your voice, some of the strong things you said with it, and seen you just last week singing and dancing to spite your cancer. I think it’s awesome that less than a month ago you were in a Huffington Post article, and you yourself said, “We’re living. We’re human beings. We’re not just a little pink ribbon.”

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22 Responses to “Breast cancer is not a pink ribbon.”

  1. Betty says:

    Hey Sarah,
    This was a great read. People do tend to forget the actual pain and loneliness that is attached with having a person in your family fall ill. There is more to it than just wearing a color. Big hugs and condolences.

  2. Julia says:

    Thank you, Sarah, for writing so beautifully about this woman, and life, and death, and these stupid symbols (corporatized, all of them) that miss the mark.

  3. Dave Seaburn says:

    Hi Sarah: My thoughts are with you and your partner.
    Dave Seaburn

  4. Molly says:

    My husband Scott was Mari’s theatre teacher in high school and she caught the bouquet at my wedding — and then didn’t marry for soooo many years!
    I am honored to have seen Mari in many of her plays through the years and on film and thank you for your courage in strength in her final days. Her laughter and spirit will live on in our hearts eternally.

  5. Sandy Kugelman says:

    Thank you for this beautiful and true piece. I knew Mari from the IV League, our Stage IV support group. She was loved beyond what I can express here. We will remember her warmth, humor, caring, beauty. How she always had words of comfort and so much love for all of us. If we gave her a tenth of what she gave us, it would be a lot.

    I wonder if you have seen the trailer to the film to which the Huffington Post article refers. It is a groundbreaking documentary and Mari plays a key role in the interviews.
    I’ve been in close touch with the film makers who in spite of only meeting Mari briefly, felt a deep connection to her. (They even wanted to make a trip from Canada so that she could see the film prior to its US release, but it just wasn’t the right thing for her.) Much love to you and all who grieve.
    Sandy Kugelman

  6. Yvonne says:

    Your blog post was shared on Facebook by a stage manager I’ve worked with, Liz Reddick. What a beautiful and heartfelt essay you wrote. It truly moved me. I am not a writer myself, but when I was diagnosed with BC at age 41, I found blogging about my treatment to be the best therapy ever. When I stopped, people kept asking “Why aren’t you writing anymore?” How do you explain such a deep desire not to be defined by a BC diagnosis? Please God, I prayed, don’t let this cancer be the most interesting thing about me!
    I stopped writing because I could, because I was one of the lucky ones. Because my tumor may have been big and fat, but it was very very stupid. Now I pray “thank you God, for giving me such a stupid tumor!” And I am blessed to be able to live on, and live a life not defined by some pink ribbon magnet on the back of my car. From what you and Liz have shared with me, I can tell that Maricela was more fascinating than any illness could ever make her. Lucky her, to have so many people around her to celebrate the kind of person she really was. The kind of woman not defined by BC!

  7. Donna Koehler Mencacci says:

    I saw the link to your page on Facebook shared by Dona Creson, a family friend. I went to high school with Mari. she was my friend; not my best friend, but my friend, and we shared classes. She was everyone”s friend. She lit up the room with her smile and her personality. I learned of her cancer fight on FB last year. You are so right that breast cancer is not a pink ribbon. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is not a purple ribbon either. My son, Lee, now 21, spent his 20th year of life fighting Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He is now cancer free for one year. Cancer sucks, whatever the color of the ribbon. May God bless Mari and her family including you. May God bless my son, Lee, and all those fighting cancer now with a cancer free life.

  8. Karen says:

    Thank you so much for your words about Mari. She and I worked together on an incredibly deep and passionate play in Los Angeles called The Caliban, and I got to know her very well during that time. I can still feel the strength of her hands taking mine, and her hugs (so strong) and that energy, that just went right through me…

    With her passing, I have renewed my own dedication to my life force, to live and be happy and manifest that around me…

    Thank you, I have no more words, but thank you.

  9. admin says:

    Karen, it’s a pleasure to hear your memories about Mari. I’m sorry I never got to see her perform onstage, let alone work with her. It sounds like an amazing experience.

  10. admin says:

    Donna, thanks for your post, and I’m so happy to hear about your son’s recovery. It’s the faces and individual stories that are the truth of cancer–the ultimate awareness campaign, more than any ribbon. I hope Lee is doing great now.

  11. admin says:

    Yvonne, congrats on your recovery, and for writing your way through it. I think writing is so important–a way to share experiences and discover all the weird little interesting corners of our own lives that we’ve never thought much about before. I’m glad you had a stupid tumor, and that writing served you so well during its demise 😉

    Mari was great. I knew her for almost two years, and about her from pretty much the very day I met my partner. Her family is so lucky to have so many long years with her!

  12. admin says:

    Sandy, thanks for posting the trailer link. I am looking forward to seeing the whole film when I can. Thank you for sharing the IV League with Mari, too–from everything her family has said about it, it sounds like it was an amazing, supportive experience for her and for you all. Much love to you, too, and all my blessings to you and the group.

  13. admin says:

    Molly, thank you so much for your memory of Mari. I would love to have seen her perform, and have so much respect for anyone who can get on stage and bring a play alive. She was such a lively person; her performances must have been amazing.

  14. admin says:

    Dave, many thanks for your condolences. I so appreciate you stopping by.

  15. admin says:

    Julia–so glad to hear this from you, given your experience. I think it’s more than possible to honor the struggle of having cancer and make people aware of the disease, just by being willing to talk about it, tell the story, and encourage loved ones to take care of their health.

  16. admin says:

    Betty, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the hugs. Love to you and Andy!

  17. Fabio Sabatini says:

    I was very touched by your blog post and, having worked in Africa and seen AIDS first hand, could’t agree more on meaningless corporate ribbons. Fabio Sabatini.

  18. admin says:

    Fabio, thanks for reading, and especially for your work in Africa. That is very good work.

  19. Vicki says:

    My heart is saddened by the death of Mari. My first teaching job was at Ball High School in Galveston,TX. Mari was one of my students. I was able to help chaperone a very memorable trip with the Theatre students to New York City during Thanksgiving break to attend Broadway plays and explore the city. Mari was one of the participants. She loved NYC; she loved theatre. She was a one in a million student who went on to take chances and pursue a career so dear to her. I am privileged to have known her.

  20. So many thoughts ran through my mind as I read this beautifully written post. You have bared your soul, cried out in anguish and anger, and wondered “aloud” about the humanity in each of us until we meet our ends.

    I don’t think I have ever read a more powerful piece of introspection than your, “How fragile all of us are, and that our body’s inevitable termination demands the most constant and careful self-questioning about what it means to be brave, to have compassion, and exist as much as possible in a state worthwhile to other people.”

    In a state worthwhile to other people…

    Bless the hearts of all the beautiful people in the world, the people who inspire and motivate, who move through their earthly years with such power and grace that they fill others with awe and admiration…

    It is a consolation…humble though it is, that the world was bettered for her existence, that your life was bettered for her having been part of it.

    And the world has been diminished with her passing.

    Let her live on through your hopes, your love, and your actions. Allow her to inspire you until your earthly days are done.

    Her legacy– what we all should aspire to. A life well-lived.

  21. Regina Castillo says:

    My thoughts are with you both, and your families in this painful time. You have really used your talent to make everyone just stop for a moment and…think.

  22. cancer says:


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