Capitalism, Cancer and Outrage

This morning my FaceBook feed alerted me to Sephora’s new program, designed to benefit cancer patients.  During a 6 minute video they show bald, scared, suffering women, getting makeup and skin care tips, then walking through the store being shown products by a Sephora employee.  Credits roll.   Women rejoice.


Right after my 1st round of chemo my youngest had his back to school night.  Only my closest friends knew I was in chemo and I wanted to keep it that way.  Our lives were already in an uproar; I didn’t want him to be “the poor boy who’s mother was dying”.   I had a dilemna:  If I didn’t show up, those who knew me would start whispering that perhaps I wasn’t doing well, might not make it.  If I showed up the way I was, everyone would know I was in chemo.  What a dilemna.

Fortunately there is a program called Look Good Feel Better, and I happened upon  a class that very day.  The goal of the program is to make women in chemo feel better by at least looking as good as possible.  I was so grateful for the make up and hair tips, scarf tying ideas and hats, and, best of all , I walked away with a free bag of brand new makeup.  I went to my son’s open house with my free wig, a scarf idea I’d gotten from the program and the makeup I’d been given.  Those that knew I was in chemo were shocked at how great I looked.  Those that didn’t know wondered why some people were stunned at how good I looked, because I looked normal to them.

Had this program been charging me for makeup – whole other thing. Here is why.

Imagine  you are walking your dog one beautiful June afternoon.  Your life is full with children, your home, your job, your spouse; all satisfying, but a lot to take care of.  To make matters worse, you haven’t been feeling your best.  You’ve found it hard lately to keep up with what used to be a routine schedule.  As you ponder what you will prepare for dinner, your phone rings.  It is your Dr. and she says “you have ovarian cancer”.  Your legs get wobbly, and your arms turn to jello.  You struggle not to drop the phone, when suddenly it occur  to you – she must be wrong.  You ask -“hey Doc, are you sure it’s me you’re thinking of?  That doesn’t seem right” and she assures you that yes, it is you.  In your last ditch effort you say “look, I’ve had some odd medical things, so isn’t there a good chance that this is just that, some weird thing that they’ll figure out, and then we’ll all laugh about the time I almost had cancer?”.  She says the following:

“We always hope for the best, but right now I need you to prepare for the worst”.

From this moment on you are two different people.  One person is the one who was there before the phone call.  That person is still in the background planning dinner, arranging car pools, cleaning the house and walking the dog.  The second person though, shoves her way into the forefront of your mind and takes up shop.  She will not be pushed aside.  Instead, she will force you to envision your funeral.  She will bring forth pictures of your children at graduations and weddings without you.  She will make you think about all the little things you do, like the scrapbook you make when they graduate high school, or the tee shirt quilt you make during freshman year of college.  Who will do these things she asks you.  She is relentless in her quest to make you picture what is ahead, to start writing your obituary, to begin planning your funeral.  She  insists that you think carefully about who you tell, which doctors you will trust, how much you will learn about the statistics, about your chances.  In those rare moments that the real you is able to quiet her down, she claws at your conscience until she again takes hold, resuming her rightful new place as the prevailing persona in your mind.

By the time you get to the doctor to find out what the next steps are, the new you is in charge.  She is determined you will survive, you will beat this.  She will make you do anything you have to to keep you alive.  She is surprised when she is told that not only will the treatment be brutal, not only is there a 50% chance you will die, but you will pay a lot of money.  The new you will spend at least $5,000 to be given a 50/50 chance at survival; a  50/50 shot at being alive, a shot that comes with a hefty price tag.

Perhaps an easier way to understand this is to think about the short story “The Most Dangerous Game”.  In this story a man  goes on a hunting trip. He falls off of his yacht and finds himself on what he believes to be a deserted island.  Suddenly he is faced with   a wealthy man who tells him “run.  I am going to hunt You”.

That’s what cancer is like.  One day you are going about your life, doing what you’ve done very day for the past 40 years.  The next day you are told “strap on your running shoes, cause you are now in a race for your life”.

If “The Most Dangerous Game” was about cancer, there would be a twist right before the starting whistle. You are told this – “well, if you pay $5,000 you have a 50/50 shot at not getting hunted”.  For the low, low price of thousands of dollars you can gamble on your life.   This comes with it’s own caveat of course.  You can pay the money and gamble and, let’s suppose you win; you escape with your life.  You can still get called back to the island.  In fact, you are told, there is an 85% chance that you will be called back to the island to run for your life, where once again you will be faced with the choice:  pay thousands of dollars for a 50/50 chance, or run for your life, in a race that will certainly kill you.

What do you do?

The two you’s have 2 different answers.  The 1st you, the original you, the you that was there the day before you found out you had cancer, that you says No way.  No way will I take money from the kids college fund, give up vacations, force my spouse to work overtime, to pay for a 50/50 shot.  That’s outrageous.  How did this even happen?  What an impossible choice to make; I can’t make it.

This you feels like she woke up one day and was told she had to pay for the air she breathes.  No Choice – pay or die.  She looks around and thinks wait… come my neighbor doesn’t have to make this choice?  Who decided it was I that would have to make this choice?  Who made up these rules, and are there other rules that I don’t even know yet?  How do I play a game that feels rigged, favors the rich, will hurt my family, will hurt me and possibly kill me.  This Is Not Fair.

Fortunately the new you, the  one with cancer, is happy to make the choice.  She goes home and tells the kids “sorry no vacation this year.  My bad    Oh, and just so you know, this might not work, so there’s that and, even if it does, I’ll probably have to do it again so y’all might want to start exploring college scholarships.”

In reality, you don’t tell your children these things.  Perhaps 40 years ago, if you survived, your children never had to learn these facts, that it was a 50/50 shot, and that chances are you’d face chemo over and over again.  Today though, children know it all, whether you tell them or not.  One quick google search provides them all of this information and more.  You can not hide from them the fact that you’ve been chosen to run for your life, and the whole family will pay for it.

For me, five years later, I’ve had the best outcome – one course of chemo and I’ve been stable since.  My family paid one time.  Each year that goes by there is less chance I’ll be called up again, but there is always that chance.  There is always that chance for every person out there.  Any day it could be you.  Any day  your life might change from planning your grocery list to penning your obituary.  Good stuff, eh?

So it is with this background that I watched Sephora’s video with a growing sense of rage.  I was waiting……waiting for the part of the video where they announce “we’ll give you free makeup”  or “we’ll give you discounted make up” or “we’ll give you 50% off”  pretty much anything would have worked here.  Pretty much any offering would compensate for the fact that their promotional video was making the rounds on FaceBook,  garnering free attention and marketing. Instead, crickets.  They will have an employee help you shop and probably accompany you to the cash register, maybe even get a bonus for the sale; credits roll.

Given that the issue of payment wasn’t specifically addressed I decided I should give them the benefit of the doubt, and I called.  I got a customer service rep on the line and told her I’d just learned of their program for cancer patients and I was wondering if that came with any give aways.  I clearly stated “by that I mean do you give these women anything for FREE, or a discounted rate”.  The rep said hold on, let me find out.  When she came back on the line she said what  I anticipated “No, we don’t give any products away for free or a discounted rate”.

In case you don’t know, 62% of all bankruptcy’s are due to medical bills.  55% of cancer patients accrue at least $10,000 in debt.  On top of all that, here come the businesses like Sephora who realize they can make $ from the pain and discomfort these people are suffering.  I can only imagine what the marketing pitch looks like.  A conference room filled with thinkers, brainstorming how to increase their profit margins, draw in more customers.  One of the people in the room knows the relative of a friend who has cancer and heard that cancer patients have specific, unaddressed cosmetology and skin care needs and gee……people seem to really like companies that help cancer patients, so let’s start a program.  We’ll be helping cancer patients, garnering good will and marketing, and boosting profits.

And of course, cancer patients can choose not to participate.  Women can decide that it isn’t worth more of their families money just so she can look better.  Before I was diagnosed, had somebody presented me with this scenario I’d say “I wouldn’t go there.  Just don’t go, no problem.  Women have free choice and if they can’t afford it they shouldn’t go; that’s not the companies problem”.  That is what I would have said and believed – it is not the companies responsibility.

Then I was diagnosed.  Then, I became the before and after versions of myself.  Then I became two people, the dominate one being the one who went out into the world and went about life with her new reality – a person with cancer.  She was the one who decided whether or not to go to back to school night, or her sons baseball game, or her high school seniors recognition night at the football game.  Had she not had access to Look Good, Feel Better, she would have gone to a business and shelled out more money so that she could walk through her life without a glaring reminder to all that she was probably dying.  Her looking okay was more important to all of them than a family vacation, or new shoes.

In the end the choice is up to all of us.  You can choose to support Sephora, to say “hey, they are keeping their business afloat; they have share holders to keep happy”.  There is nothing I can do about people who make this choice.

My hope is that if you agree with me, if you think it is irresponsible and vile for companies to boost themselves on the backs of cancer patients, you will Speak Up.  Post about it on social media.  Write to the company and express your disgust.  Tell your friends and family to boycott the business.  Take a Stand.

After all, you never know – you might be the next one called to the island to run for your life.


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