Chronic Illness Awareness Month

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This column, That Nature Show, is about the nature right under your nose: in our backyards, playgrounds and parks! Stop and look around, you’ll be amazed at what surrounds you. 

It’s Pinktober. Breast Cancer Awareness month. I’m all for it, all pink-frosted donuts, and ribbons, and running shoes. Like the bumper sticker says (and I find both soft-core-y and infantilizing):  Save the ta-tas. My mother had a double mastectomy in her thirties, and survived. My mother-in-law died of the disease.

Though pink is powerful and cancer a scourge, more women have illnesses you can’t see. Illnesses for which there are no bake sales or support groups. They’re the so-called “invisible” chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia (which has only recently been taken seriously, when fMRI’s showed proof of abnormalities in the brain’s pain processing centers, proof you could have gotten simply by believing a fibromyalgia patient), autoimmune diseases, TMJD, and other “overlapping conditions” that primarily effect women. “But, you don’t look sick,” is a common and terrible response.

Earlier this month Meghan O’Rourke wrote an essay for The Atlantic about the ugly underbelly of the American medical system.  Unhappy yet arrogant doctors, price-gouging monolithic insurance companies, terrible overhead lighting. Yet chronic invisible illness is on the rise.  According to a recent piece in The Washington Post, “The Institute of Medicine reports there are more than 100 million chronic pain sufferers in the United States, and others have estimated the problem costs $60 billion a year in lost productivity.”

According to the CDC, “As of 2012, about half of all adults—117 million people—have one or more chronic health conditions. One in four adults has two or more chronic health conditions.” And it’s only going to get worse, as we live longer. Author and physician Atul Gawande has a new book out called Being Mortal, in which he questions the whole conceit of compassionate care as we age.

We  — the chronically sick (yes, I am one of you, here I am waving, coming out, like I Can Haz Cheeseburger o hai!) —  are between a rock and a hard place.  Caught between No Answers and Little Compassion. We are flying below the radar of the money-making supportive commercial ventures behind Breast Cancer Awareness and the Ice Bucket Challenge (which by the way was genius.) The breast is easy to love, it makes a good pasta shape, and who does pink not pep up? Who doesn’t like seeing people pour ice on their friends’ heads?

I want an Chronic Invisible Illness Awareness Month where we make pain-scale faces out of fondant and wear fuzzy slippers and our slacks hiked way up high and sport little enameled pill bottles on our lapels, the way politicians do the American flag.  The chronic pain of fibromyalgia, dry eye, early-onset spinal osteoarthritis can’t be made into cookies. Wait. Maybe it can. The Day of The Dead is coming up. And there are lot of sugar-candy skulls that might the just the thing. I plan to wear a necklace of them to show my support. It’s very Frida Khalo. And so appropriate: she too suffered from chronic pain.


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