I don't look forward to Breast Cancer Awareness Month. That may seem like a strange statement coming from a woman whose own mother was diagnosed with the disease. Given my sex and age, I have a personal stake in seeing progress made.
I remember what it was like in the late 1960s, when women didn’t feel comfortable using the word “breast" to talk about their illness. They had little voice in their diagnosis or treatment. Most, like my mom, were under anesthesia when their doctors made the choice to perform a disfiguring radical mastectomy.
Thanks to a few prominent outspoken women, like First Lady Betty Ford, this scenario began to change. These early pioneers worked to educate and empower women and lobbied for research funds and alternative treatments.
These first efforts to raise awareness were about honoring women's choices and providing them with accurate information to help them make decisions about their health. The loftier goal was to eradicate breast cancer, reduce incidence, and save lives. But it feels like something's gone sideways since the pink ribbon message of awareness took over.
The best example of what turns me off about today's breast cancer awareness is the current sleazy UK breast awareness campaign found in The Sun. This daily has partnered with a non-profit to urge women to "check 'em" every Tuesday. How do they motivate at-risk readers? By using one of their young (barely 18) topless Page 3 models to teach us.
Here's what's wrong with this, and some other breast cancer awareness efforts:
1) Little connection to those at greatest risk. Page 3 models are barely out of their teens, an age when a diagnosis is fairly rare. Charitable campaigns often emphasize youthful, perky breasts in their ads, as well. While breast cancers in US women under age 40 can be more aggressive, they still represent less than 5% of all cases. Those at highest risk are women age 50 or older.
The Sun’s Page 3 is also directed at male audiences, yet there's no mention of male breast cancer. They aren't alone in choosing to ignore the risk of breast cancer in men.
2) Patronizing approaches not backed by science. The Sun’s Check ‘Em Tuesdays is offered as a gentle reminder to women that they should be aware of any changes to their breasts. Here in the United States, you might find middle school children wearing “I (heart) Boobies” bracelets for the same reason. Store shelves are lined in pink products to keep us all alert to anything out of the ordinary.
But is anyone unaware of breast cancer? I haven’t found any studies showing that women are any more (or less) aware of their breasts than they were 40 years ago. My mom found her own lump and was well aware it could be cancer.
Some awareness campaigns promote routine monthly breast self exams (BSEs), even though there's no evidence they “save lives.” Calls to action are part of many pink ribbon messages. It should come as no surprise that this could result in well-meaning charities giving out less than accurate medical advice.
3) Ignores the biology of breast cancer and how it progresses. I, too, once believed that “early detection saves lives." Find it early enough and it's not a problem. But scientists now know that is not how cancer operates. Breast cancer isn't one disease, but many. It doesn't even progress the same way in all cases. A barely perceptible lump might be more fast growing and aggressive, and a larger mass less deadly. You can develop Metastatic Breast Cancer (when it has spread to other areas of the body) after an early stage diagnosis. It all depends on the biology of the tumor. But most awareness efforts continue to focus on early detection as if it were the cure.
4) Sexualizes and trivializes breast cancer. The Sun’s crass breast cancer awareness campaign makes it obvious that a woman’s worth is found in her youthful perky breasts. (Why else would they even publish a Page 3 Girl?) Other Pinktober promotions encourage women to decorate bras, hang them across bridges, or dress up their breasts. The awareness message turns into one about saving boobs, not lives.
This also obscures the reality of the disease. A breast cancer diagnosis can result in many losses, including hair, libido, fertility, limb function, career, savings, friends, and even family. For many women, new perky boobs (with little to no sensation once reconstructed) aren't a priority. Breast cancer is not about one body part.
Even when perky bared breasts aren't front and center, juvenile sexual language is used to grab attention. We are urged to “save the tatas,” “save the boobies,” “second base” and “cop-a-feel." It's all done lighten things up. But many breast cancer patients are angered by and object to these sexist and degrading messages. Their concerns are dismissed or ignored. It's become acceptable to sexualize and objectify women's bodies and breasts, as long as its done in the name of awareness.
5) Awareness places burden of staying “cancer free” on the individual. If you’re not checking your breasts all the time and, god forbid, you end up with one of the most deadly forms of cancer, you could be to blame. In a recent Avon/Pfizer survey, over 50% of respondents believed that those with advanced breast cancers “either did not take the right medicines or preventative measures.” Cancer goes from being a fault in our genes to something we could have controlled.
6) Corporate self-interest and wasted resources. The Sun’s full-page color photo of a topless woman reminding you to check your breasts may not be the best use of space in a major newspaper. But they're also trying to justify a section that is currently under attack. What about the time and energy to hold thousands of walks, runs, and charitable events, backed by corporations looking to promote themselves? What about resources used to color everything pink? The question consumers should ask is how their money is best used to support research and prevention--not just more awareness.
There has been progress over the past four decades; new therapies help extend lives and patients have way more options. But it's hard to link these advances to pink ribbons and awareness. Incidence of breast cancer is higher than when my mom was diagnosed; while rates of those dying haven't changed dramatically. All these awareness efforts haven't translated into greater understanding about risk or prevention, either. Women are more confused than ever.
But, no worries. Another month of pink is right around the corner.
What do you think of breast cancer awareness month? What's your view of The Sun's Check 'em Tuesdays campaign? Will you be buying pink ribbon products or supporting any specific breast cancer causes in October?
Featured image: The Sun