UNPOPULAR OPINION: A Defense Of Breast Cancer Awareness Campaigns And "Pinkification"

I can answer the question, “Aren’t we all aware by now that breast cancer exists?” with a resounding “No.”
Publish date:
October 29, 2014
healthy, Breast Cancer, pink, breast cancer awareness month

For the past few years, October has been a month of conflict for me. I spent three years of my life overseeing grants programs for Susan G. Komen Greater New York City. And each year, during Breast Cancer Awareness month, there’s a predictable drumbeat of articles in the progressive media decrying the “pinkification” of America, questioning what happens to all the funds raised by “pink” fundraising events and campaigns.

In truth, I’m glad for this scrutiny. All social good campaigns are only as good as the public trust they engender through the work they do to improve lives. In early 2012, Susan G. Komen violated that trust when they pulled their support for their important ally Planned Parenthood Federation of America because of undue influence by conservative elements.

But even before the media firestorm and public outcry over this, Komen had begun to draw ire for some of its dubious corporate partnerships. Although Komen has worked to repair its public image, it still appears to be fairly tone deaf since progressive media has been having a field day this month revealing that Komen entered a partnership with a fracking company that would use pink drill bits as part of their breast cancer awareness campaign.

While Komen’s corporate partnership standards are questionable, some corporate campaigns have no standards whatsoever. All through October, you see pink ribbon-emblazoned products in stores claiming that with their purchase, a donation will be made to benefit breast cancer. But how much of a donation? And where is the money going? Is it going to treatment services or to research? Given all this murkiness, the increased scrutiny and criticism of key organizations in the breast cancer field is not only justified, but necessary.

The need for transparency in the breast cancer field has thankfully given rise to watchdog advocacy groups like Breast Cancer Action, which takes a broad and holistic approach to understanding the disease, but also provides facts and recommendations that are untouched by politics or industry.

However, there’s a concerning aspect to the profusion of media critiques: they tend to be largely limited to a white, educated, liberal perspective. For example, a recent thoughtful and thought-provoking article in Orion by Jennifer Lunden, which examined the contributing factors in breast cancer awareness and screening practices, asked:

“WHY ARE WE so fixated on awareness, anyway? Aren’t we all aware by now that breast cancer exists? That it is a bad disease? That it touches the lives of far too many women?”

Based on my experience as a woman of color and as a person once charged with overseeing a community breast health grant program, I can answer the question, “Aren’t we all aware by now that breast cancer exists?” with a resounding “No.”

Breast cancer and, breast health, in general, were not health topics discussed in my household, or in my broader community, despite coming from a highly educated background. Throughout my twenties, I knew very little about breast cancer and assumed it was a disease that primarily afflicted elderly women.

It was not until someone in my social circle who was in her mid-thirties was struck with breast cancer that I became aware and educated about the nature and scope of the disease. In fact, this was my catalyst for joining Komen -- I wanted more women of all backgrounds to be aware and connected to screening, treatment, and supportive services. I hoped that clear information and guidelines could replace the shame and stigma that shrouds this body part in so many cultures and communities.

Every day, I was in awe of health care professionals and programs working to provide education, screening, and treatment services that were sensitive and targeted to the needs of diverse communities, from making sure that educational materials were culturally and linguistically appropriate for Urdu-speaking girls and women to making sure that messaging was sensitive to LGBTQ populations.

Every day, I was inspired to see individuals who once suffered in silence, or worse yet, were ostracized by their community because of their diagnosis, become empowered leaders, urging others in their community to become aware and seek care proactively.

When people ask the question, “Why are we so fixated on awareness, anyway?” the answer is because awareness is the necessary first step. Although there is much to be researched, discussed, debated, and improved upon when it comes to screening guidelines, treatment protocols, and factors for prevention, an awareness of breast health is the best starting point.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the color pink. I came to regard it as an occupational hazard. However, I have seen women of incredibly divergent backgrounds brought together under the shelter of a pink ribbon. Ultimately, I left Komen in part because of the disconnect between its approach to fundraising and visibility and its programmatic mission. Much of the good you accomplish with one arm of an organization can be cancelled out by the actions of the other -- this is a lesson that still seems beyond Komen’s grasp.

But this October, all of these issues have once again become personal for me. I have close friends and family members who are bravely fighting this very real disease. And being just shy of my fortieth birthday, I am due for my baseline mammogram. “Schedule Mammo” is just one line beneath “Get Flu Shot” on my To Do list.

While the ongoing scrutiny and critique of breast cancer awareness campaigns and their organizers is important to improving the integrity of the broader breast cancer advocacy movement, I hope we are just as concerned that this movement seek collective awareness, not just the awareness of a chosen few.