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The Hard Truths About Breast Cancer Awareness Month

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Auburn chapter.

It’s October, which means all pink everything! In case you have been living under a rock, it’s breast cancer awareness month. This month is a magical one where mundane, normal-colored things like whisks or tools are turned Pepto pink, people wear pink shirts with cutesy slogans like “save the ta-tas,” and 5k races are doused in pink abound, all in the pursuit of breast cancer awareness and fundraising.

What’s the problem?

Breast cancer awareness month has become more than just a cancer awareness campaign; it has become a social phenomenon. But it’s important to ask hard questions about what some call “Pinktober,” like does it actually spread correct information about breast cancer or raise a legitimate amount of money for breast cancer research? Unsurprisingly, there are companies and even cancer research organizations capitalizing on the human sensibilities triggered by breast cancer awareness month for their own benefit, and there is misinformation and skewed awareness about the disease abounding.

How many women die from breast cancer?

The prevalence of breast cancer awareness month has provided the public with a somewhat misinformed view on the actual prevalence of breast cancer. I conducted a quick survey to figure out what people know about breast cancer and its prevalence in women. The survey included men and women ranging from 18 to 58 with education levels ranging from freshmen in college to adults with a masters degree, with some respondees choosing to remain anonymous. Fifty percent of those surveyed said that they thought that breast cancer is the leading cause of known cancer deaths in women. In fact, the leading cause of cancer deaths in women is actually lung cancer, and only 7.4 percent of respondees responded with this answer. Lung cancer causes 21 percent of female cancer deaths, and breast cancer causes 15 percent. The second most popular answer for the leading cause of cancer deaths in women was ovarian cancer, which actually only accounts for 5 percent of female cancer deaths

So what about the other cancers?

So where is the universal prevalence of lung cancer awareness month, since it accounts for 21 percent of female cancer deaths? (It’s November, by the way.) Why have people fixated on breast cancer instead of lung cancer? Likely, this is due to the patient-blaming nature of lung cancer and the stigma surrounding it. Nearly everyone who went through the D.A.R.E. program in elementary school, who has a TV with cable (everyone loves those anti-smoking commercials, right?), or who has ever taken some semblance of a health class has heard of the dangers of smoking and how it can lead to lung cancer. But does that mean those with lung cancer are less deserving of care and support than those with breast cancer, simply because we believe that they caused their own disease? Does that mean the 18 percent of people with lung cancer who have never smoked deserve to hear the questions about their smoking habits every time someone figures out they have lung cancer? 

There is a stigma associated with lung cancer unparalleled in other cancers. So shouldn’t there be time and money dedicated to reducing this stigma? That’s actually how breast cancer awareness month started. It was a taboo topic, and it was impolite to talk about disease of the breasts. Thanks to the hard work of social activists and feminists, we can’t stop talking about breast cancer awareness month. So shouldn’t we treat this taboo topic the same way? Getting rid of the stigma of lung cancer is important for allowing for better treatment, research and social support of lung cancer patients- so maybe instead of just thinking pink, we should think pearl too.

Also, breast cancer awareness month is the only one widely observed across all fields- even by those unaffected by breast cancer. However, there are many people unaffected by breast cancer, but heavily affected by other, lesser-known diseases. I have had people I love be diagnosed with all sorts of diseases, but where is their universally acknowledged month? Why aren’t there products like cake mix emblazoned with a light blue ribbon for prostate cancer, or sports teams wearing yellow for bone cancer? Connie Glass, one of the responders in my afore-mentioned survey, said, “I think [breast cancer awareness month is] a fad and has very little to do with awareness. It’s an opportunity to sell merchandise that’s pink. Also, for football teams, fire departments, etc. to choose to support awareness for only one type of cancer is insulting to those who suffer from other types of cancer.” 


Merch that sends the wrong message.

Speaking of selling pink merchandise, the October market inundated with pink products is actually subject to a phenomenon called “pinkwashing.” This means that businesses are attempting to capitalize on the breast cancer awareness furor by breaking out the pink dye for their products, even when their products are actually known to cause cancer. These companies are trying to appeal to everyone’s sensibilities and get their money, while still producing products that could potentially increase the chance of breast cancer.

1) Mike’s Hard Lemonade tried turning itself pink for promotion, even though as little as a moderate amount of drinking can lead to breast cancer

2) 2010 KFC instituted its “Buckets for the Cure” campaign, when eating fried foods has been linked by the National Cancer Institute to cause colorectal, pancreatic and breast cancer. In addition, during the campaign, the company had already pledged its donation to the Susan G. Komen foundation regardless of how many pink buckets it sold, giving people a false impression that a portion of their purchase was going toward cancer research, and allowing the company to advertise without affecting change. 

3) One of the most prominent instances of breast cancer awareness campaigning is the NFL’s Pink October. During this month, players don the pink and play on ribbon-encrusted fields in order to promote awareness for this great cause. The NFL sells pink products to raise money for foundations that enact cancer research. However, in 2013 Business Insider discovered that only 8.01 percent of the funds raised from the sale of its pink merchandise actually goes to cancer research, with the majority of the remainder of the funds going to the retailers and manufacturers of the products.

These issues seem insurmountable- what can we as collegiettes do to counteract the force of giant fast food or football companies denying transparency in their donations to breast cancer research? Actually, it just takes a few seconds to think about what you’re purchasing. Breast Cancer Action has developed a campaign called Think Before You Pink, which is working to regulate this misuse of the breast cancer awareness symbols. This campaign has developed a list of 5 rules that you should follow when buying breast cancer awareness products, and to hopefully lessen the amount of pinkwashing occuring this October. Another thing you can do is spread awareness about breast cancer and the skewed marketing treatment it often gets during Pinktober. 

For the breasts or the woman?

Breast cancer awareness campaigning in general is often blatantly sexist by putting an appealing spin on awareness for the disease. 

While it is fantastic to get as many people involved in campaigns as possible, ads like these reduce a patient to the value of her body parts. In addition, a large majority of patients with highly advanced breast cancer have to undergo a mastectomy and remove their breasts. Does this mean these women have any less value, since they have lost what needed to be saved? This focuses the campaign on the societally-imposed sex appeal of a woman, while what should really be the focus is curing the disease and not saving the body part. Not to mention that campaigns like these completely disregard the 440 men the American Cancer Society predicts will die from breast cancer in 2015, and the 2,350 men who will be diagnosed. Instead, promote messages like the one below. Educate yourself on breast cancer before you hit share on that slightly sexist pink picture on Facebook that you think is so funny, because you never know who of your friends has been affected by this disease, and who you are reducing to their sexual desirability by doing so.

There is something amazing to be said for the advocates of breast cancer awareness month. They have overcome a social stigma to create a universally-recognized month where they get people to actually care about breast cancer, to perform self breast examinations, and to spread some pretty good information about the dangers of breast cancer. Casey Collins, a respondee to my aforementioned survey, said “Sometimes it can be overkill as far as publicizing goes, but I do think it reminds people to get checked,” and emphasized the importance of early screening in the case of eliminating her mother’s Stage 0 breast cancer. “People need to think about this and to be aware- it needs to be on people’s minds.”

Other than Pinktober, October is national infant loss and miscarriage awareness month, Alzheimer’s awareness month (the funding for which is regularly appalling, just by the way), Down syndrome awareness month; and also includes mental illness awareness week and world mental health day. It’s also adopt a shelter dog month. Be careful about the causes you choose to support and how you choose to support them. A good social activist supports causes that are transparent about how they spend their money, spread true awareness and not misinformation, and know how their actions affect the campaign as a whole. Spread your education, be aware of the pitfalls in the causes you support, and go out and enact change!

Meghan is a senior at Auburn majoring in microbiology and minoring in journalism. She has been a contributing writer for Her Campus since her freshman year of college, and she absolutely loves it! Her life is made up of alternating periods of stress and relaxation, but full of joy. She loves octopi, Dr. Pepper and strong jawlines.