Breast Cancer Awareness Month Remains Problematic

Nearly everybody knows that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and that in October, they can count on seeing pink-ribbon-labeled products everywhere they go. What they don’t know, though, is that some of these “support breast cancer” efforts actually do more harm than good.

To begin with, many products claiming to benefit breast cancer charities are disturbingly vague about these claims. It usually takes at least a little bit of digging to find out exactly what charity the proceeds from a given item or brand are going to, whether the company will actually donate a meaningful percentage of its proceeds to that charity, whether the charity uses donations for meaningful efforts such as research and whether the charity has a problematic record.

We also face the problem of “pinkwashers”, a term coined by the charity Breast Cancer Action to describe companies and organizations that tout pink-ribbon items even though they make products that are linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer. For instance, the Yoplait breast cancer fundraising campaign that began in 2008 completely glossed over the fact that the cows producing their milk are treated with the potentially carcinogenic hormone rBGH.

Even worse, there are cosmetic products specifically marketed to female cancer patients whose ingredients have been linked to cancer. These “Look Good, Feel Better” kits don’t help much with feeling better either — some of the chemicals in them can actually hinder breast cancer treatment.

Susan G. Komen, perhaps the best-known breast cancer charity in the country, teamed up with the fracking corporation Baker Hughes in 2014 to distribute pink drill bits for breast cancer fundraising. Fracking is known to increase the risk of developing cancer. This is hypocrisy at its finest.

It’s about time for a reality check, too. Walking around decked out in pink, a common occurrence in October, does nothing for the cause in and of itself. Pink-out campaigns are only meaningful if they are coupled with the distribution of useful facts about breast cancer or an encouragement to donate to a breast cancer research charity.

As if it wasn’t bad enough already, the general American breast cancer awareness movement also reeks of sexism. That’s right; sexism exists in a movement designed to support people with a disease that mostly affects women.

It’s hard to go through the entire month without seeing someone wearing a pink shirt or wristband saying something along the lines of “I Heart Boobies” or “Save Second Base”. To add insult to injury (literally), according to the Huffington Post, Oct. 13 has now become National “No Bra Day”, a subcomponent of Breast Cancer Awareness Month that encourages women to go without a bra for 24 hours and post reasonable chest selfies on social media.

Putting aside the fact that #NoBraDay is no Ice Bucket Challenge — there’s nothing established in that movement that encourages donations to breast cancer charities — the two aforementioned phenomena exemplify a deep-seated problem within our national culture. They suggest that the face of breast cancer is a certain pair of hyper-sexualized fatty glandular tissue pieces that usually hangs off a woman’s chest, not the actual women (and men) who suffer through chemotherapy, hospital stays and tremendous pain so that they can have a second chance at life.

Breast cancer is expected to kill more than 40,000 U.S. women in 2015, according to Approximately 1 in 8 U.S. women and 1 in 1000 U.S. men will develop invasive breast cancer at some point in their lifetime. These chances go up for people with a history of breast cancer in their family. Breast cancer is far from a laughing matter. So why do we make such light of this devastating and all-too-common disease of the “tatas”?

Perhaps it’s because our patriarchal society has been conditioned to value women not so much for their personalities and strengths as for their ability to create, bear and feed our children. As a results, breasts, which are easily visible on most fully-grown women, are a natural target for objectification.

Let’s face it, though. As much as some of our society’s (heterosexual) men like to stare at women’s breasts, the real point of sex-related cancer awareness and research should be to save the women with cancer — not their “boobies”, not their “baby bags”, not their “egg machines”.

A woman’s worth does not go down if she must undergo a removal of reproductive organs to save her life. Besides, if men are so concerned about having something to goggle at, they can consider for a moment the fact that many women who have mastectomies opt to surgically reconstruct their breasts with implants.

I have a friend whose mother is in remission from breast cancer, and I know someone else whose mother passed away due to the disease. It seems to be quite a slap in the face for the former, and an insult to the memory of the latter, to act as if breast cancer is all about the breasts themselves, and to go around parading special-edition pink products that actually contain possible carcinogens.

It would be wonderful if somebody discovered a cure for breast cancer or a way to reduce the need for mastectomies among patients. Realistically, though, that could take years or even decades. So until that much-awaited breakthrough actually happens, as Breast Cancer Action advises, “think before you pink”.