The Awareness Trap

Pink ribbon culture is like any other cultural system. It has both intended and unintended consequences. If both are identified, then people can determine how to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs. (Gayle Sulik, Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health, 2011, p 19)

Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) did not spring from the head of Zeus. It, and its pink ribbon brand mark, were created and rolled out, like every other marketing campaign.

In and of itself, that information is neither positive or negative. Certainly, there was a time in the not-too-distant past when breast cancer was not spoken of in polite company. A shroud of mystery was in place, even covering the women themselves. But thanks to the hard work of myriad advocacy groups, the disease once too shameful to be named has been dragged into the light.  2013-10-01 15.47.41

If the goal of “awareness” in October was to bring breast cancer into the public space, I say Mission Accomplished.

So why are there still giant pink ribbon Mylar balloons and breast cancer booze being sold at my Kroger?

Twitter declared October 13th #NoBraDay to spread Breast Cancer Awareness. Big effing deal, you say, and in a way, you’d be right. Still, I decided to spread my own version of awareness there, by letting people know that their pornish pictures and 140 character pronouncements on being sans appropriate undergarments have nothing to do with breast cancer.

I reverted to my charming style of years gone by. After all, 140 characters requires a certain bluntness. Not surprisingly, I got some push back, Twitter style. A few people sort of engaged, saying that the ends justify the means and one particularly delightful young lady told me that I should be grateful because she was doing it for me.

And she called me the c-word.

The question I asked everyone was this: You say this is for breast cancer awareness. Awareness of what exactly?

Look, I know it’s a double-edged sword. That this disease inhabits the cultural pinnacle of femininity is one reason it has gotten so much attention over the years. But it seems like we’re having a hard time moving past a juvenile level of awareness. Consider, for example, that people being treated for breast cancer often undergo permanently disfiguring surgeries.

Would you post pictures of perfectly toned and tanned legs frolicking in sunny meadows in order to bring awareness to people who’ve lost limbs to roadside bombs in Iraq?

And then tell them they’re jerks if they’re not grateful for all you’ve done?

Let’s consider some often-ignored breast cancer facts.

No. No it’s not. Source: Project Eve
  1. This focus on healthy breasts in the name of awareness often ends up being linked to pithy slogans like “save the ta tas.” Breasts are considered to be our cultures ultimate symbol of femininity – both sexual and maternal. So, yeah, thanks for reminding us of how far outside the norms we now reside. But my hurt feelings aren’t the only problem.
  2. People are, of course, attracted to the fun and naughtiness of these sorts of campaigns, so trying to interject some reality is often met with vitriol for its buzzkill tendencies. Or ignored altogether. This is what Gayle Sulik, quoting poet Lucille Clifton, calls “The Terrible Stories” in her book referenced above. How can we be aware of breast cancer if we can’t even listen to the truth about it? These breast-level campaigns belie the facts of this disease. Namely,
  3. breast cancer that stays in our breasts won’t kill us. That’s why so many of us have part or all of them removed; in order to try to stop cancer from spreading beyond them. However,
  4. it doesn’t always work. A certain percentage of breast cancers (20%-30%), no matter at what stage they are originally diagnosed, will someday return as Stage IV, or metastatic breast cancer. We don’t know which ones metastasize or why. And,
  5. there’s no cure for Stage IV breast cancer. Twenty-two percent of people diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer live for five years. Virtually all breast cancer deaths are caused by metastatic breast cancer. Sadly,
  6. it is estimated that over 40,000 women in the United States will die of breast cancer in 2015. 440 men. More than half a million people worldwide.

This couldn’t be more disconnected from what we call Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

So again, I ask: Awareness of what exactly?

4 thoughts on “The Awareness Trap”

  1. Why don’t people get this yet? No simple answer to that. I guess we grumblers have to keep grumbling till they do. Thanks, Katie.

    1. That’s the thing I dislike. I feel like I keep saying the same things over and over. When I step back, I can see that some people have been reached. Sometimes I feel like someone else should pick up the torch, but if I can reach one or two, I guess that outweighs my personal frustration. Thanks for the comment, Kathi!

  2. If the “ends justify the means” then we must consider ALL of the ends. When you add them up (conflicts of interest, sexualization, trivialization, infantilization, marginalization, pinkwashing, diversions of funds, misinformation, misuse of scientific information, profiteering, exploitation of good intentions, consistent death rates for 3 decades, increasing incidence rates, fear mongering counterbalanced by a feel-good-culture-of-consumption, collateral damage of treatment – to name a few), the cost/benefit ratio appears to shift pretty far to the COST side.

    1. So true and exactly what you said in your book. We have to acknowledge it all in order to discern the best way forward. I reread PRB last week and I know I don’t say this enough, but your clarity and commitment to pink mania is a tremendous gift to me and to the universe in general. 🙂


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