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Rethinking the pink (or my take on Breast Cancer Awareness Month)

Alright wonderful people. It’s time for me to get real here for a second. I want to talk about something that has been on my mind a lot lately and that is: all this pink.

Roughly one month ago today I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer at 30 years old. I was thrown into a whirlwind of testing and prodding and fertility treatments while trying to wrap my head around what it meant to have breast cancer. I was still practicing saying, “I have breast cancer” in front of the mirror when wham! it was BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH and I was all of a sudden drowning in a sea of pink. I have had many feelings about this month so far and we are only 10 days in so I thought I would get them out there, early on, so I have something to chew on while the pink-splosion continues.

What I appreciate about Breast Cancer Awareness Month 

It’s history: When I was first diagnosed I remember feeling that one of the sliver linings of being diagnosed with breast cancer was that at least it was well understood. Everyone has heard of it. It wasn’t some mysterious and rare disease that I had to explain at length every time I spoke to someone. I began to think about how popular breast cancer is. It has its own month, its own color, its own ribbon, and thousands, if not millions, of its own products. I think people often think: well, of course! Everybody loves boobies! But as I am learning it didn’t always used to be this way. Up until the 1970s and 80s when women like Betty Ford, Rose Kushner, Betty Rollin and other activist patients began speaking out, breast cancer was considered a taboo topic (evil cancer was not discussed in relation to something that was considered exclusively sexy or nurturing) and there was only one treatment: radical mastectomy. These bad ass patient advocates brought breast cancer out from behind closed doors. They demanded that breast cancer be given the funding, the research and the respect it deserved. Women wanted more options than just having their breasts, chest walls and armpits removed with every diagnosis. They wanted a greater chance at survival. They wanted to feel empowered. That was where all of this began.

Solidarity: I have never, in my life, been in a position when I was more in need of solidarity than I am right now. If you read this blog, if you have seen the struggle I have gone through so far, if you will stick by and continue to watch from close up or afar as I go through the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through, if you will still love me when I’m bald, if you will still support when I’m mad and sad and screaming, if you have felt a moment (or lots of moments) of sadness or fear or anger for me, or if you have done any of these things for anyone else with breast cancer (or any kind of life-altering tragedy really) then you stand in solidarity with breast cancer survivors. If you dress up in pink from head to toe every day for the next year, shave your head, wear a little ribbon, or do a walk/run or crawl in the public name of that solidarity than I am grateful. And should I ever find myself standing in a sea of pink at a breast cancer awareness event someday I am sure it will be incredibly empowering. But if you avoid pink for the rest of your life and still stand in silent solidarity with me then I am equally grateful.

Funding: I know that I am getting some of the highest quality care in the world right now. My breast health care center is incredible. My surgeon and oncologist are the best. I am on chemotherapy drugs that were devised by the best minds in the world. I do not take this for granted and must credit the movement with making that funding possible. In fact, breast cancer is the best funded cancer by far. It has just as many incidences and a similar death rate as prostate cancer but gets twice the funding.

What I do not appreciate about Breast Cancer Month

Commodification: When I look at this sea of pink I have to ask myself: who is this benefiting? Is it benefiting the company that is selling the product, the public who has their “awareness” raised or breast cancer patients? Sadly in many cases I think the vast majority of the benefit goes to the companies selling us the products, events or good feelings. Take the NFL’s “A Crucial Catch” campaign in which football fields and players are pink-washed for the month of October. It is entirely unclear how much the NFL actually donates to breast cancer causes as a result of this campaign each year but it is perfectly clear that they get a huge jump in female viewership as a result (and that the pink-washing comes at no small price… all those jerseys, shoes, giant pink ribbons add up). In total the NFL donates less than 1% of their revenue to community causes every year so I don’t think breast cancer can expect that much.

Hypocrisy: What’s worse, some pink-washed products include toxins that are actually known to CAUSE CANCER. For example, Breast Cancer Awareness Movement watchdog Think Before You Pink took on Yoplait and the infamous pink yogurt top with a campaign a few years ago to remove rBGH, a synthesized hormone given to cows which ends up in dairy products and which has been controversially blamed for increasing risk of cancer. (The campaign successfully got both Yoplait and Dannon to get rid of yogurt with rBGH). This isn’t to mention the hundreds of other food, skin care, plastic and otherwise potentially harmful products that turn pink in October. You shouldn’t be raising awareness about something when you are contributing to it.

The Silliness: I would be the first to say that I know I won’t survive breast cancer without a little humor along the way. However, I feel like, in general, breast cancer isn’t always handled with the gravitas that a life-threatening disease should be. Perhaps it’s because of the boobies. Perhaps it’s because it’s so prevalent and so many people survive it. But I just feel that some of the silly crap that I hear about Breast Cancer Awareness Month would never happen with other diseases. Like, “No Bra Day” for example, in which you can show your support for Breast Cancer survivors by not wearing a bra. There is no world in which a bunch of braless women would make someone whose boobs have been invaded by a life-threatening disease and, in most cases, horribly disfigured by treatment, feel supported. This is serious shit. It’s literally my life at stake here. I don’t need everyone to be all gloom and doom all time but I’d also like this disease and the devastating impact it has on everyone it touches to be taken seriously (serious as cancer right?).

What the Breast Cancer Awareness Movement Needs

Education beyond awareness: Here’s what I thought when I felt a lump in a breast: holy shit I have breast cancer. The odds were very much against me that it was (85% of breast issues are benign), but everyone knows about breast cancer, not everyone knows about all of the benign breast diseases that it could have been. In the beginning I was mad at the Breast Cancer Awareness Movement. I felt like this movement had made me so “aware” that breast cancer existed that I was sobbing and having a panic attack because I was certain that I had a deadly disease. And there is some data to support that women might in fact be too aware, too afraid and too freaked out by breast issues because we all know about breast cancer too much.

That being said I generally think awareness is a good thing. IF YOU FEEL A LUMP, NO MATTER WHAT AGE, GO TO YOUR DOCTOR! I’ll only say it once folks. Please for the love of goodness consider me your own personal breast cancer awareness campaign. But also get yourself some real awareness. I don’t think that the pink-splosion actually does that much teaching. It certainly adds visibility, but it doesn’t really tell us much. The amount of information I have learned about breast cancer in the last month could fill a book and the majority of it I have had to learn myself. Shockingly, yogurt labels failed to teach me the finer points. Ultimately I don’t think awareness just for awareness sake is helpful.

What we need is deep and comprehensive education, and not just on the topic of breast cancer, but on the topic of health. Cancer is almost twice as prevalent in the global North. What are we doing to ourselves? What are we putting into our bodies and what are we exposing ourselves to? Everyone knows that smoking causes lung cancer. But I feel like many don’t know that up to 30% of cancers are the result of our lifestyle choices including our weight, not eating enough fruits and veggies, lack of physical activity, tobacco use and alcohol use.  We need to talk about this. Breast cancer shouldn’t make you think about football players covered in pink. It should make you think of eating and living well- that’s empowerment and that’s sexy! And more specifically, girls should be taught more about their breasts. They should have some idea of what benign breast diseases they might encounter in their lifetimes. They should know the technicalities of their tatas and that they have a lot more to offer than just cleavage.

I also think we need to better prepare our society to deal with disease on an emotional level. I feel like a pretty well-rounded person but felt completely unarmed when it came to facing issues of death and major illness. We should teach meditation, mindfulness, yoga, self-love, healing, etc. We will all face tragedy. Wouldn’t it be nice if we, as a society, valued these kinds of self-care practices as much as we valued fitting into a size 4?

A Social Justice Angle: Breast cancer discriminates and we need to talk about it more. Although breast cancer rates are highest among white women, African-American and Hispanic women are more likely to die from the disease. African-American women have a 78% five-year survival rate compared to 90% for white women and their cancer is more likely to be discovered at later stages. Hispanic women, although 26% less likely to get breast cancer than white women, are 20% more likely to die from it when diagnosed at a similar age and stage.  And race is not the only distinguishing factor. There is also income. Low-income breast cancer patients have five-year survival rates that are 9% lower than higher income patients. This is life and death stuff and no one should have to die because of their race or income status. We should be outraged. We should spend all 12 months in the year figuring out what to do about this and the Breast Cancer Awareness Movement should lead the charge!

So what do we do?

So I hope you all take this post in the way it was intended. I do not want to seem ungrateful for either the tremendous amount of work that has gone before me to get me the care that can save my life, or the kindness and generosity of all of you lovely people and wonderful giving strangers. I’m just an activist at heart. When I see something I need to say something and there is a lot to be said, as you can see, about Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

I also don’t want to dictate how anyone else feels about this month. I know it is deeply personal to many. And I think, as I have laid out, that there is some good with the bad. Mostly I just think that if you want to support breast cancer that you should get yourself informed. How much money is your purchase actually providing to breast cancer research, patients or support services and who is it going to? What impact does the product you purchased have on our bodies and our world? Is it making the situation better or worse? There are a zillion wonderful breast cancer organizations out there that you can support and I recommend you research them, especially local ones, and especially before handing money over to the big ones with controversial practices (I’m looking at you Susan G. Komen).

If you want to really educate yourself check out Think Before You Pink and the organization that runs that campaign and acts as a watchdog to the Breast Cancer Awareness Movement, Breast Cancer Action.

And finally, I would say definitely consider donating to rarer forms of cancer or rarer diseases. Goodness knows they need the attention more than breast cancer does!

Thanks for lending me your ears for this rant!

More resources:

History of the pink ribbon– surprise, it’s controversial!

Welcome to Cancerland– excellent critique of the Breast Cancer Awareness Movement

Article on over diagnosis (among other things)- from New York Times Magazine