I have a love-hate relationship with Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM). There. I said it.
BCAM has served its purpose in big, beautiful ways. There was a time, not so long ago, when women did not freely admit that they had been diagnosed with breast cancer and some even chose to forgo treatment rather than surgically alter their breasts, which was seen as taboo. Breast cancer was not discussed on the news nor was it a part of mainstream pop culture, appearing in magazines, on television shows, and in movies. Breast cancer was not funded or discussed by state or federal legislatures.
Today, in 2021, we have charitable walks and survivorship pink parties. Youth soccer clubs and pee-wee football teams are adorned in pink. The celebrity-du-jour graces the cover of glossy magazines sharing how she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the grit necessary to get through the diagnosis, and the transformation that came after.
The number of screening mammograms performed at many of the imaging centers around the country doubles or even triples in the month of October. Wading through this sea of pink gives me a sense of hope that awareness is happening — that more and more women are acting on the message of early detection. In the crowds, I see the promise of research funding. If each of those pink shirts, pink lipsticks, pink mixing bowls actually resulted in money towards meaningful breast cancer research, it would translate into real change as we work to end breast cancer.
Many patients and patient advocates find October to be a particularly effective time for their mission. They find more platforms for sharing their story, elevating their voice, raising funds for important work to be done. Many of the patients and survivors I care for feel celebrated by the pink ribbons they see around town and wear them proudly. For each of these reasons I love October and find myself celebrating and speaking out more as a clinician-scientist, fundraiser, and public health advocate. I make more media appearances — always wearing pink, of course — while continuing to care for persons diagnosed with breast cancer and engaging in breast cancer research.
But I hate it too. I hate it because all the pink causes pain to those patients who would prefer for their breast cancer diagnosis in the rearview mirror. I also feel the pain of terrible messaging. Messages meant to be funny and light-hearted or meant to inspire can strike the wrong note with patients who know breast cancer for what it is: a life-threatening disease with toxic treatments. Other messages fall short, sexualizing or infantilizing a disease that needs to be taken as seriously as the women it predominately affects.
Rampant commercialization of BCAM is also hard to tolerate. There are many pink products that do not ultimately benefit breast cancer research. There are also products that have gone pink that are, in fact, harmful. Perhaps the most obvious example is pink alcohol. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer. Can you imagine buying cigarettes that benefitted lung cancer awareness month? So “Rosé all Day for Breast Cancer” is a hard no for me.
BCAM can also amplify stereotypes. The breast cancer stories that get talked about in pop culture and glossy magazines are typically those of young cis-white women with great access to health care, which is far from the lived experience of many who are diagnosed with the disease. Breast cancer and those it affects is as heterogenous as our nation — old and young, every race and ethnicity, every gender and sexual orientation, of diverse financial backgrounds, and with varying degrees of health literacy. This is one of the things I love about the Dr. Susan Love Foundation — we have a mission to represent the spectrum that breast cancer affects.
As October rolls on, I want to ask your help in rectifying my love-hate relationship by purchasing products that you know are going to a first-rate charitable organization. (You can find ones benefitting the Dr. Susan Love Foundation here.) If you choose to wear pink, choose simple and direct messages that will resonate broadly. Respect the experience and preference of the survivors in your life — if they love October, help them celebrate; if they hate it, offer to run to the grocery store on their behalf! Make sure you are up to date on your breast cancer screening, but also make sure someone in a different situation than you is up to date on theirs. If they aren’t, find a way to help. Even if we hate it, let’s try to make pink, October, and Love synonymous for all.