Puking Pink: My Adversity to Breast Cancer "Awareness" Campaigns

I'll tell you the truth : I love October, but I hate breast cancer awareness month.

Hear me out. I'm the daughter of a breast cancer survivor. To make a very long and painful story extremely short, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer 13 years ago. She had a mastectomy, chemo, and went into remission. Five years later, she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer - breast cancer that had moved to other parts of her body. First, it was a tumor that had wrapped itself around one of her lower vertebrae. Then, it was her femur, her humerus, her ribs. She had radiation treatments. She found a cancer treatment center to go to where the doctors could give her more holistic treatment options. She started taking vitamins and eating better and pursuing clinical trial treatments that might help her. In 2008, we found out that it spread to her liver. She still kept moving forward, finding more ways to treat her illness. Her list of treatments and counter-treatments is a million miles long.

Eight years after her second diagnosis, here she is. And here I am. We've learned a lot about what's important to us, and we've learned that we are blessed beyond our wildest understandings. But that's not to say that the heartache of living with cancer isn't abundantly, painfully real to us.
We pray that someone finds a cure to this disease. We pray that others find the strength and the faith to battle their own diagnoses and that they can learn to advocate for themselves. We pray that people learn to pay attention to their own bodies, their own health histories, their own well-being.

However, I just cannot stomach the pink-ribboned, horrifically over-sexualized, over-commercialized breast cancer "awareness" campaigns that have come out in recent years. Whether it's buying a bag of chips with a pink ribbon on it, sporting a "Feel Your Boobies" t-shirt, or posting a vague and suspiciously sexual statement in a Facebook status, it has all become an easy target for manufacturers and commercial advertisers to target their most vulnerable and influential demographic: women.

Should we be donating to a good cause and raising awareness? Yes. But at what cost?
Even the products that sport the pink ribbon have been known to contain harmful cancer-causing chemicals. And there are other campaigns meant to "raise awareness" that raise questions about their moral and ethical treatment of women.

So the question becomes: are these companies milking the breast cancer issue and are you willing to continue buying into their exploitation?

Because here's the thing: raising awareness and finding a cure breast cancer is a good cause.

But not all campaigns "for a good cause" are good for us.


leigh said...

What a refreshing thing it is to see a young, educated, motivated woman questioning the value of some breast cancer awareness campaigns vs. celebrating all things pink. This time of year certainly reminds us that social marketing is alive and well and that, while we'd like to believe it, "the cause" or making a difference isn't always the primary motivator.

You may be shocked, given my agreement with your sentiments, to find out that I'm actually the Founder of Feel Your Boobies and a young breast cancer survivor myself. So as I was reading your very compelling and well-written post on this issue, I was disappointed that the Feel Your Boobies campaign was the "awareness" campaign you chose as an example.

You see...we don't even consider ourselves a breast cancer awareness campaign because we feel strongly that we focus 100% on promoting proactive breast health and behavior change among an audience that generally tunes about a breast cancer...achieving this is much more sophisticated and involved than awareness alone. Awareness, while important, often falls short of actually educating or motivating someone enough to take action. We call ourselves a Reminder Campaign, because our mission focuses solely on finding ways to remind young women about being proactive in knowing their bodies. It's more than humor or a provocative slogan or a simple t-shirt. We are a non-profit organization that uses 100% of our net profits to be able to send more "feel your boobies" reminders. Our campaign is responsible for saving lives..and our testimonials from young women who credit our campaign with their breast cancer diagnosis is evidence to that.

My question to you is, since you're exactly who we target, how do we make a young savvy, educated, vocal young woman like you view us differently than the other "empty campaigns" and efforts out there that you so articulately refer to. We need your voice to help people see the difference between what we do and efforts that do truly suffer from what you focus on in your post.

Thanks for what I'm sure will be a thoughtful response. I very much look forward to it. And my thoughts are with your mother...

Leigh Hurst
FYB Founder/President
Young Survivor (Diagnosed age 33, 2004)

Kayo said...

My mom died of inflammatory breast cancer at age 53 (no lump with IBC, by the way). I am 44 and have metastatic breast cancer (no lump for me either, just a thickness and one I hadn't noticed til nurse pointed it out).

Everyone knows that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But not everyone knows that Oct. 13 is metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day.
We are all well too aware of breast cancer which to paraphrase the late Molly Ivins, is massive amounts of no fun. (“First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.”)

Metastatic breast cancer patients are often overlooked during October. Treatment is for life and some stories don’t fit the Triumphing Over the Odds template beloved of many journalists writing feature stories on cancer patients..
As someone with MBC, I'd like people to know that:
>Metastasis refers to the spread of cancer to different parts of the body, typically the bones, liver and lungs.
>Treatment is lifelong and focuses on control and quality of life vs. curative intent.
>About 6% to 10% of women like me are Stage IV from their initial diagnosis.
>Early detection is not a cure. Metastatic breast cancer can occur ANY time after a woman's original diagnosis, EVEN if she was initially Stage I, II or III.
>Only women with Stage 0 (noninvasive breast cancer) aren't considered to be at risk for metastatic breast cancer.
>Between 20% to 30% of women initially diagnosed with regional stage disease WILL develop metastatic breast cancer.
>Young women DO get metastatic breast cancer.
> There are many different kinds of metastatic breast cancer.
>Treatment choices for MBC are guided by hormone (ER/PR) and HER2 receptor status, location and extent of metastasis (visceral vs. nonvisceral), previous treatment and other factors.
>Any breast lump, thickness or skin abnormality should be checked out. With inflammatory breast cancer, there's no lump-the breast can be red and/or itchy and the skin may have an orange-peel like appearance.
>Women shouldn't use the recent mammogram controversy to postpone their first mammogram or delay a regularly scheduled exam, especially if they have a family history.
>Mammograms can't detect all cancers. Trust your instinct. If something feels “off” insist on further diagnostic testing.
>Metastatic breast cancer isn't an automatic death sentence-although most women will ultimately die of their disease, some can live long and productive lives.
>There are no hard and fast prognostic statistics for metastatic breast cancer. Every woman's situation is unique.
>There are many excellent online metastatic breast cancer resources. Examples include www.mbcnetwork.org and www.metavivor.org.

Bethany said...

Thank you both for your informative comments!

Leigh, I apologize for targeting your campaign without further explanation. I admit that I am still in process of educating myself on yours and other "reminder campaigns." However, I still stand by my initial response to it: I feel that your slogan - and it's not the only one, there are others - but slogans like yours sexualize breast cancer awareness or "reminders" as you call them. While they may bring more attention to a young demographic, they also reinforce the cultural objectification of the female body.

Why does "effective marketing" have to target breast cancer in a sexual way? Yes, I get it: breasts are a part of our femininity, they're a part of our sexuality, etc. I just don't think that targeting our vulnerability to the cultural objectification is right. I'm not saying that your campaign doesn't achieve it's goals to remind young women or anything, and I'm not saying I have the answers. I just want to get women (and men) talking about effective yet honest, clean marketing that raises awareness and reminders without partaking in the ongoing cultural mire that damages self-esteem and young women's about who they are emotionally and mentally. And Katherine is right, if you want to remind women to pay attention to their physical health, you also need to make sure that they understand that it takes more than "copping a feel" every once in awhile to catch breast cancer early.

Stay tuned. I am not targeting only your campaign, and I will be sure to mention the assets of your foundation even though I will discuss the implications behind your slogan. And keep me accountable; I don't want to mar your reputation as a foundation, nor do I want to write something untrue. Please share with us why and how you came to choose that slogan, and how well it has served your cause. If you'd like to discuss this further, please feel free to email me at shewritesandrights@gmail.com

And Katherine, thank you so so SO much for these helpful stats. My prayers are with you and your family.

Please feel free to stay a part of the discussion through my posts in the next few weeks.

katie ford hall said...

Hi Bethany,

I am very sorry about your mom.

I want to let you know about something going on with the Feel Your Boobies Foundation.

I thought you might find it interesting. There is certainly nothing harmless about that foundation, in my opinion.



katie ford hall said...

I reread my comment and realize I sound like a spammer. So I'll give you a bit of background... I posted on FYB's wall about some of the sexual comments that were being made about "boobies" and how survivors like me find that hurtful. They deleted all of my comments and let the sexy ones stand. A lot of people went to their wall and asked them to explain, to discuss, to open a dialog. All they did was delete everyone's comments without addressing anything. Still, the booby comments stand. I find it disgusting and have documented it all on the blog listed above.


Bethany Suckrow said...

Wow, Katie. Wow. Thank you SO MUCH for commenting. I'll definitely look into that. And I'd also like to apologize - I don't know if you've looked around my blog at all but I didn't post anything more on this subject last October because I was too overwhelmed with work at that point. Hopefully this year I will get that chance. If so, I'd love to have you do a guest post or compare notes or something.

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