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It’s beginning to look a lot like October: Breast Cancer Awareness Month & policymaking

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and pink is everywhere. Panera Bread is promoting a Pink Ribbon Bagel, Staples is selling pink Uniball pens, and Dick’s sporting goods is offering pink tennis balls. Even government can get into the spirit. In 2009, the Obama Administration wrapped the White House in a giant pink ribbon while, this year, the Winder (GA) Police Department painted one of its patrol cars pink. It’s hard not to notice all of the pink. And that’s the point.

Corporate-connected activists have branded breast cancer as pink—feminine, hopeful, and uncontroversial. They worked with businesses to sponsor walks and runs and to create cause-marketing products (like the bagels) to raise awareness of and money for breast cancer. They have been wildly successful. Americans see pink products at the store on everything from yogurt to socks. They buy these products and, when they bring them into their homes, the message of breast cancer as pink is reinforced while eating breakfast and getting dressed.

These messages have changed the way Americans think about breast cancer. We’ve come a long way from the 1980s, when breast cancer was a stigmatized disease and not openly discussed, when local newspapers wouldn’t print the word ‘breast’ in their stories, and when women avoided seeing their doctors or getting second opinions on painful lumps. Today, more Americans know the pink ribbon is the symbol of breast cancer than the name of the vice president. They are more likely to identify the organization that created cause-marketing campaigns as a funder of breast cancer research than the National Institutes of Health.

But for all of the benefits it provides, raising awareness of breast cancer as pink also comes at a cost. Although nobody wants more breast cancer, there are deep divisions within the breast cancer community about what breast cancer is, how best to solve the problems associated with breast cancer, and what it means to have the disease. Pink framing—publicly promoted in walks and runs and in supermarkets and shopping malls across the country—however, forms an umbrella over men and women who have breast cancer, and activists and organizations who work to address the disease, whether they agree with it or not. Many activists dislike the association of breast cancer with pink, because they believe the disease isn’t soft and sweet—it’s difficult, painful, and sometimes deadly. According to one group, “Cancer Sucks.”

 But for all of the benefits it provides, raising awareness of breast cancer as pink also comes at a cost.

Contrary to the walks, runs, and cause marketing there are a wide variety of solutions that activists propose. Some want to go to Congress and ask for money for research on breast cancer, for healthcare to cover treatment, and for more stringent regulations on the known causes of cancer. Others want to take to the street and protest corporations that put carcinogens in air, water, and commercial products. But it is hard to advocate for alternative solutions when policymakers wear pink ribbons as a sign of support and when corporations promote their good deeds on the packages of their products.

So, now that it is October, what should we know about breast cancer? We should know that breast cancer affects both women and men, though it is far more common in women; that breast cancer deaths have been declining over the past two decades; that African American women have the highest mortality rates; and that the gap between African Americans’ and white women’s mortality is growing.

And what is the best way to address the problems associated with breast cancer? Should we skip the walks and runs and avoid the pink products? I don’t think the solution is so easy. Breast cancer, like cancer more generally, is a complex disease that can have a significant impact on men and women who are diagnosed as well as their families, friends, and communities. People do get individual benefits when they get involved, from feeling solidarity with others at walks and runs to feeling good about buying pink products. We can’t dismiss these experiences.

At the same time, however, there are other ways to get involved too. We can give money to national nonprofits or to local support groups, which focus on everything from research, to treatment, to various kinds of support. We can get informed by reading about breast cancer or by signing up for trainings. We can be involved through advocacy, political protest, and volunteering formally or informally in our communities.

Breast cancer is many things, including pink. But it isn’t just that.

Featured image credit: October pink brease cancer by waldryano. Public domain via Pixabay.

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