Breast Cancer “Awareness”

So I got some coupons in the mail today. The coupon booklet was filled, front to back, with all manner of breast cancer awareness information, as well as pictures of the company’s own employees who are breast cancer survivors. The coupon for bottled water showed a woman who was “healthy and hydrated,” and of course, a Greek yogurt coupon gave another woman pictured the “loaded with vitamins to keep you healthy” pitch. All of these woman were dressed in pink, some still with their heads wrapped in scarves from having lost all of their hair due to chemotherapy. They are all smiles, and seemingly quite happy.

These images gave me a sinking feeling that I could not quite articulate or understand in the moment. So out of curiosity, I googled “breast cancer survivors” and images, and found this.

My goodness, how pink and pretty. We are told so much how strong breast cancer survivors are, but do we really know why? Do we know that it hurts (a lot) when your hair falls out, or that chemo can make you not just exhausted and sick, but unable to eat, drink, move, or sleep? These women have been stared at, whispered over (sometimes very obviously, in public, by adults, when they choose to venture out with no hair) and gone through excruciating treatments for weeks and months on end.

Sometimes, when they share their diagnosis with others, they are for some reason asked if they’ve done their monthly self-exams. Self-exams, as a matter of fact, do not prevent breast cancer.

Other times, they’re told that at least they’ll “get new boobs” when they’re all done with this. Or told “at least your insurance covered your new ones. I had to pay for mine!”

Sometimes, breast cancer survivors are not all smiles. Sometimes they are scared. They don’t want to go back to finish their treatments, because chemotherapy is horrible. They tell their daughter this, and she keeps her mouth shut, because it is not that daughter’s right to expect her mother to keep suffering just for the benefit of the rest of the family. And that daughter breathes a huge sigh of relief when her mom decides to go back anyway. Sometimes cancer survivors suffer from depression and anxiety, even years after they are given a cancer-free diagnosis. These women are strong too, even when they feel weak. Or especially when they do. The women who choose not to finish chemotherapy are strong. The ones who grow tired of fighting back are strong too.

I do not say all this to diminish the women who are proud, vocal, survivors. They have a positive outlook and impact, and my mom spent time as both kinds of survivor, and I was very proud of it all. I say this to shed light on the fact that breast cancer awareness is about knowing every side of the disease, and that the faces of survivors are not all filled with smiles. Awareness is not a can of soup you buy with a pink ribbon on the side of it. The marketing of breast cancer awareness has become a money maker by many to play off of the empathy and emotions of those that actually do care, and want to help. But the “pink-washing” trend unfortunately can numb us and normalize us to the prevalence of breast cancer, and how horrific it is. As a former boss and mentor of mine said often “we confuse activity for accomplishment.” We post Facebook statuses about our bra color, and pretend it means anything. We wear “Save the Tatas” shirts, as if breast cancer treatment is about saving breasts, rather than saving women. We have been manipulated by those that look to profit from the suffering of others.

Here’s what we can do. We can educate ourselves, and we can donate to organizations that fund research, treatment, and support. If you know someone who is undergoing treatment, offer to do things for them. Don’t say “let me know if you need anything.” Don’t say “you’ve got this.” Read this list, it’s a great start. You can support the legalization of medicinal marijuana, because sometimes it’s the only reason chemo patients want to eat, and the only reason they feel good enough to get out of bed. They shouldn’t be criminals for that. You can support universal healthcare, because low income women (or men, or children) without a full time job, or insurance, or the ability to pay for treatment should not suffer and die. Even those with good insurance (like my mom during her treatment) have to argue with their insurance companies to justify scans and medications. It is a heartless industry that exists to generate profit. Go sit with someone doing chemotherapy. It is eye opening. And bring them food, because it takes hours, and you don’t exactly get served lunch.

And more than anything, just listen, when they want to talk about it. They have and are fighting a war that you and I don’t understand unless we have been there. I think we have come a long way, but we can do a lot better.

2 thoughts on “Breast Cancer “Awareness”

  1. I can’t begin to describe all the emotions this brings up for me. As you well know, your mother was my wife. More than anything, I am so proud of you for writing what you know and feel. Such incredible and real insight. The hell that you and I went through, while Mommy was going through the ultimate hell, left scars that will never go away. She was a cancer survivor. Breast cancer did not take her life. But I don’t know if anyone is a cancer diagnosis, or cancer treatment survivor. Wars are waged, the damage is done, and reparations are made. But what was there is gone, and will never come back. The new never replaces the memory of what you had. The new never takes away the fear of future. What if it comes back. Will I know in time? Will I survive it a second time, or third, or? I’m glad that women can smile after surviving this horrible disease. But I agree with you 100%. Don’t sell their smiles as a means to sell your product and increase your profits. I’m grateful that you donate “some” of those profits to help fight breast cancer. When it becomes a sacrifice for your company, and for you personally, money out of your pocket, not a marketing decision, then I will be impressed.

  2. Hannah and Mr. A I completely and utterly agree marketing expenses do not qualify as “costs” in these circumstances once again corporations show no shame proudly displaying their evilness.

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