Putting cancer color wars in perspective

Published 9:23 pm Monday, April 18, 2011

At my alma mater, Longwood University, we had Color Wars during every Oktoberfest. If you entered the university during an even-numbered year, you were on the red team. If you entered during an odd-numbered year, you were on the green team. Each team lined up on either side of a field, wearing white T-shirts and armed with plastic cups and barrels of colored water. The goal was to get as much of our opponents’ shirts tainted with our color as possible.

The Color Wars battle was always messy and fun, and each team enjoyed poking fun at the other side. But once it was all over, we grilled hotdogs and hamburgers together and forgot about the whole thing — until the next year. At Longwood, what color you represented during Color Wars didn’t matter, as long as you were a Lancer.

That’s why I must admit I’m a little puzzled by the partisan bickering I’ve noticed online over what “color” deserves more attention.

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I’m talking about cancer colors, of course. What, you didn’t know that every type of cancer had its own representative color? Neither did I, until I did a story last week on a new Relay fundraiser.

Every type of cancer has its own signature color. Most of the colors don’t seem to be related to that type of cancer at all, though pink for breast cancer is sort of obvious.

Nobody even seems to know how those particular colors became associated with those types of cancer. For example, when I searched “How did teal become the color for ovarian cancer?” I got no answer to my initial question, only plenty of blogs talking about ovarian cancer.

One particular online columnist who is a survivor of ovarian cancer seemed oddly miffed that they had not informed her of the color of the ribbon during her treatments at the Cancer Treatment Center of America — as if they don’t have bigger fish to fry there.

Don’t get me wrong — the colors and ribbons can be useful tools for helping to raise awareness of some of the lesser-known cancers, which in many cases is half the battle toward getting more people to be screened early.

But when online debates about the colors that represent cancer become nearly as serious as the disease itself (one person commenting on an online article said it makes her “feel sick when people expect me to pick a color”), maybe the cancer color wars have gone a little too far.

I realize that every type of cancer brings its own physical and emotional challenges that are different from other kinds. There’s a benefit to be gained from joining with others who have fought the same type, or had loved ones fight the same type.

But let’s not get too caught up in partisan bickering about which cancer deserves more attention. Every life lost from any kind of cancer is one life too many.

That’s why I’m delighted that I was able to write a story last week about a new mermaid pin designed by a Norfolk artist. The beautiful mermaid features a number of different colors — as many as the manufacturer could squeeze on there, she said — and can become the symbol for all types of cancer.

You can get the pin for $10 at Quilt With Me, 2999 Corporate Lane, or by calling 925-3752.

And support the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, which raises money for all types of cancers. To find out how, visit www.suffolkrockinrelay.org.