It’s time for a revolution y’all. It’s Pinktober and already my blood is boiling as I see everything from garbage trucks to coffee cups splashed in pink in the name of the life-threatening, traumatizing, and demoralizing disease I’ve been fighting for over two years now. We deserve better and I think we all know it. We need to revolutionize Breast Cancer Awareness Month and here’s why:
Corporations splash pink all over everything and show smiling “survivors” and it makes breast cancer seem like an opportunity to show how happy and empowered you can be even without any hair. There isn’t a breast cancer fighter or survivor on the planet who hasn’t gone through a tremendous amount of pain in one way or another. All cancers are traumas that cause real human suffering. And yes, many women may make it out the other side, but let’s not reduce their human tragedy and resilience to a cheerful photo-op. Let’s tell our stories and talk about the heartache, the fears, the loss of identity, control and sometimes hope. And let’s tell the stories of those women who do not survive this terrible disease. There are 40,000 of them every year. Let’s honor them in a real way instead of sweeping the sad stories that make us think about our own mortality under a bright pink rug. We do humanity a disservice to not tell these honest human stories that connect us all through our shared suffering.
2. We need to spread REAL awareness.
Supposedly “Pinktober” is “Breast Cancer Awareness Month” but despite all the Octobers I’d endured in my 30 years before my diagnosis I didn’t know a damn thing about breast cancer when I was diagnosed. For example, did you know that today, 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer in their lifetimes, up from 1 in 20 in the 1960s, and that incidences of the disease are predicted to go up 50% by 2030? Did you know that genetics only accounts for 10% of all breast cancer cases and 50-70% of cases are the result of unknown environmental causes? Did you know that “early detection” does not actually save lives and annual mammograms may not always be the answer?
3. We need to put the focus on prevention.
The first “pink ribbon” was made by a woman named Charlotte Haley in the early 1990’s who, fed up with the number of breast cancer diagnoses in her own family, made the peach colored ribbons, attached them to postcards that read: “The National Cancer Institute’s annual budget is $1.9 billion, only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon” and sent them off to friends and family. The pink ribbon grew out of a demand for prevention and today even with an entire month devoted to the disease less than 2 percent of breast cancer research funding goes towards understanding that 50-70% of unknown environmental causes of breast cancer. Not only are the companies who promote breast cancer awareness not contributing to research for prevention, some of them are selling pink products with known cancer risks such as the rBGH that was in the Yoplait yogurt with the infamous pink lids, the “Promise Me” perfume promoted by Susan G. Komen which contained hazardous chemicals or the most egregious of them all, the pink painted fracking drill bits created in a partnership with Komen, despite the fact that fracking is well known (even BY KOMEN) to cause a variety of cancers.
4. We need to fund research on treatments for more diverse populations.
Evidence tells us that breast cancer in young women is generally biologically different from that in women over 50. It’s often more aggressive and young women are much less likely to survive. It’s also the most common cancer in young women and yet young women remain underrepresented in research studies. Young African American women are three times as likely as white women to die from breast cancer. And while 30% of all breast cancer will metastasize outside of the breast, like mine has, which often results in a terminal diagnosis, we only receive 3% of research funds. There is a world in which metastatic breast cancer, much like HIV, could go from being a death sentence to just being considered a chronic condition. But not as long as the research for treatments for metastatic cancer never materializes. The vast majority of breast cancer treatment research is benefiting older white women with early stage cancer and that needs to change. This is literally a life or death matter. It’s MY life or death matter.
5. We need transparent and accountable fundraising for breast cancer.
There is nothing wrong with companies who want to donate to breast cancer research. The concern is that every year millions of dollars are spent on pink ribbon items that lead caring consumers to believe they are helping. But most often buying pink products is not a very efficient means for supporting breast cancer research. It IS a really efficient way, however, for companies to make more money and brand themselves in a positive way. Some of the questions you have to ask when you see a pink product are: Are a portion of my proceeds actually going somewhere and how much is being donated? How much did that company spend on making all that pink stuff, versus how much is being donated? What organization will get the money and how will they spend it? Is there a cap on the amount of money being donated? Does this product actually contain harmful toxins that could lead to cancer? Here are just a few examples of the problem:
- Dansko shoe company sold pink ribbon clogs in 2010 but Dansko made a $25,000 donation completely unrelated to sale of the clogs so purchasing pink clogs (which let’s be honest, just sounds like a mistake no matter how you spin it) didn’t make any difference.
- The “Kisses for a Cure” music box sold by Bradford Exchange (in the shape of Hershey’s kiss) said that “a portion of the proceeds from this music box will be donated to help fight breast cancer,” but there was no information available anywhere on where the money would actually go.
- Reebok, in 2010, marketed a line of pink footwear saying that proceeds from the sale would go to the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade but set a cap of $750,000 and never made clear to consumers when they reached that cap.
So how do we start this revolution? Here are a few ways:
1.If you are a survivor, tell your story and be honest. Let’s share our common struggle, our humanity, our mortality. Let’s connect and make something meaningful out of the shit cards we’ve been dealt.
2. If you’ve lost someone to breast cancer honor them in whatever way is most meaningful to you but let’s not let them be forgotten.
3. If you buy a pink product take responsibility and interrogate your purchase. Ask the manager, write a letter, send them a Tweet. Let them know that you want answers, you are holding them accountable and you don’t want to just blindly lend them your support.
4. Please don’t support Susan G. Komen… the pink fracking drills was the final straw but before that don’t forget the part where they tried to copyright the phrase “for the cure” or when they de-funded Planned Parenthood.
5. If you care about breast cancer do something meaningful. Don’t settle for the couple of cents that will disappear into the pink ether from your morning latte. Find an organization you know and trust and make an actual donation. Breast Cancer Action taught me most of what I know about this issue and does a lot of work to focus on preventing breast cancer and calling out the ridiculous pinkwashing shenanigans. The Environmental Working Group has just launched a cancer prevention project. Metavivor focuses on getting funding for metastatic breast cancer. Find a local charity that is providing special outreach to young women, minority women or women living in poverty with breast cancer and support them.
6. Educate yourself on cancer prevention and spread that kind of awesome-sauce awareness around. Once again, Environmental Working Group is your go-to! They have a cosmetics database that tells you about toxins in your cosmetics called SkinDeep. They have a database on household cleaners and which ones are safe and which ones are chock full of toxins called the Guide to Healthy Cleaning. They have a Food Scores database which rates food and how healthy it is. And their new cancer prevention program is doing a ton to spread awareness about environmental toxins.
7. If you want to participate in a walk or run be my guest but again, interrogate the organizers, ask the sponsors what they are doing, figure out where the money is going. Be smart and savvy and critical while you are out there getting your walk or your run on!
8. Give some love to the other cancers! Honestly, where on your body you get cancer is hardly important to most cancer survivors and fighters. The same environmental factors can lead to a number of different cancers and many of the treatments are quite similar. I have swapped cancer stories with friends who’ve had cancer in their colons, brains, bones, eyes, lymph nodes, blood, vulvas, ovaries, skin, testicles, nasal passages, lungs, throat, organ linings, you name it, and found our experiences to be very similar. All cancers need funding and often a treatment for one cancer can be used on others. Let’s spread the love and the wealth and the awareness!
9. If you want to wear pink, do it for Planned Parenthood. I was fortunate enough to have found a lump in my breast during a time when I had access to health insurance but there were plenty of times in my life when I didn’t have insurance and I relied on Planned Parenthood for my gynecological services. Planned Parenthood provides 400,000 Pap tests and nearly 500,000 breast exams each year which are critical for detecting cancer.
10. Hug a breast cancer survivor or fighter! Just kidding… don’t do that, unless we actually want a hug from you. But do be patient with us, we’ve been through a lot. Do understand that we are not like the smiling women in the posters, that being bald doesn’t always feel bad ass, that cancer is terrifying, treatment is terrible and that just because a doctor says the cancer is gone doesn’t mean our cancer journey is over. We are humans and we’ve been through suffering same as all humans on this planet. Share in that suffering with us, listen to our stories, root for us from the sidelines but please, do not, under any circumstances, buy a pink bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken in our name.