Staff Column: ‘Awareness’ movement overrun with falsehoods

Amanda Monthei

                                                    Breast Cancer Awareness Month misses point

I’m going to preface this piece by saying that two women in my immediate family are currently battling or have in the past battled breast cancer, two women I look up to immensely, women I have witnessed in my youth and now, as an almost-graduate of college, battle a disease so beyond my comprehension I am left speechless by their grit. These two women rock.

Amanda Monti: Managing Editor
Amanda Monthei: Managing Editor

That said, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This means pink ribbons and the ambiguous assurance that wearing a pink shirt may help find a cure for a complex and relentless disease that affects more than 232,000 women (and an additional 2,200 men) every year, according to the American Cancer Society.

Amidst this month of seeming “awareness,” one of my family members affected by breast cancer will undergo radiation therapy. She will drive five hours to Detroit from my hometown in the Lower Peninsula. There, she will get her treatment, hopefully one of the last in a series of perhaps 60 others that she has endured since January of this year.

However, this month has also brought the inevitable onslaught of pink-tastic yogurt lids/energy drinks/sporting goods/ribbons, pointless bracelets (you know what ones I’m talking about) and tight-fitting shirts with clever boob puns (Save the Ta-Ta’s!). During this time of the year when everyone is apparently much more aware that boobs exist and are susceptible to cancer, all I ask is that we all take a moment to reflect on what these light-hearted jokes are really alluding to.

For those driving five hours every week for chemotherapy, the clever jokes probably aren’t something worth paying attention to (in my family, those affected by breast cancer avoid the ‘pinkwashing’ by any means necessary). And for those unable to afford the procedures necessary to battle breast cancer, I can’t imagine the boob jokes are all that funny.  After all, the money raised by the various breast cancer campaigns won’t pay for gas to get to treatments, nor, in most cases, for the treatments themselves.

In fact, and despite the good intentions of some organizations, recent reports by the Better Business Bureau of Chicago, as well as by Marie Claire magazine, point out that a handful of breast cancer charity organizations contribute almost nothing to actual research for the disease. Organizations like the Susan G. Komen For the Cure foundation have recently been outed for bringing in profits in the hundreds of millions while contributing little to actual research, instead using the month of October as a marketing ploy to reach the 18-to-54-year-old female demographic.

Further, Komen usually teams up with rather counter-intuitive companies for their marketing attempts, most notably with Kentucky Fried Chicken for its “Bucket for a Cause” campaign. It seems everyone but KFC sees the irony in contributing 50 cents of every bucket of fried chicken to breast cancer research when eight pieces of this chicken contain 2,400 calories and the leading cause of death in women is heart disease. Not quite a noble effort to help “save lives.”

Beyond that, even for those that are contributing to research, Marie Claire reports that in the 20 years since the breast cancer awareness boom of the mid-90s, amid annual yields in the billions, breast cancer research hasn’t been particularly fruitful. And on top of it all, what can be dreadfully referred to as the “Breast Cancer Awareness industry” is now being plagued by scammers like the Susan G. Komen foundation, which aims to target the most basic of all human emotions — compassion.

This all creates a sort of “guilt” paradox that most Americans are uncomfortable thinking about — that a cause that hits close to home for many of us, one that we want to be able to support — is in fact an industry, a marketing opportunity, an unfortunate breeding ground for scams and falsehoods that undermine our human desire to help those suffering from breast cancer.

But it’s important that I make this point: this isn’t about not supporting breast cancer awareness — by all means, everyone should understand the realities of the disease. It’s also not particularly about shunning those that find some sort of solace in wearing a pink shirt to class to support those in the throes of breast cancer, or those that buy the pink version of their favorite beverage just because the option is there. The organizations being supported by these purchases, I can only hope, are putting all possible energy and resources toward actually finding a cure and helping cancer patients in their respective struggles.

But as it is, the breast cancer awareness fad is no longer about the humanity of helping. Breast cancer awareness is a brand. It means corporate profits for Yoplait, with their pink lids, for Mike’s Hard Pink Lemonade Special (Breast Cancer?) Edition  and for Swiffer Wet Jet, which is “Cleaning for a Cause” this month (gag…).

It’s about capitalizing on the good intentions of Americans who are desensitized by years of “slacktivism” — the idea that sharing this image on Facebook or updating your status to the color of your bra (oh, how scandalous!) will somehow make people more ‘aware’ of a disease that has killed 39,620 of the estimated 232,340 women diagnosed so far this year — a disease that brings thousands of dollars of debt to those affected by it who are subsequently unable to pay for it. It’s a disease that has directly affected two women in my family, and, I assume, many, many others in the NMU community and beyond.

I understand that donating to research is a way for those not directly affected by breast cancer to feel like they have helped in some way. I only ask of these individuals that they research where their money is going — the American Cancer Society is a surefire place to send donations if donors are scam-wary.

However, on the awareness front, all I have to say is that awareness does not stop breast cancer. Awareness also does not support the women who are struggling to pay hospital bills, or those who are too weak to continue working or even to go to the grocery store while enduring chemotherapy. And as of recently, it appears that awareness also doesn’t cover the myriad of other cancers that humans are subject to. The industry has focused solely on breast cancer, apparently because boob puns are fun and everyone likes boobs. I have to wonder — what about leukemia, ovarian cancer, liver cancer and pancreatic cancer? Are these forms of cancer not deserving of the billions of profits for research that the breast cancer awareness industry is currently raking in?

I ask that everyone research where they’re putting their money, and that next time they consider buying that pink bucket of fried chicken or a pink garbage can (these exist), remember who is at the root of this seeming ‘awareness’ being spread — not some ambiguous corporate entity, but real women.