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What Exactly is Breast Cancer Awareness Month Making Us Aware of?

Updated: Jun 17, 2018

What Exactly is Breast Cancer Awareness Month Making Us Aware of?

As Breast Cancer Awareness Month came to a close, a surprisingly critical headline teased an opinion column in the upper right corner of The New York Times homepage: Breast Cancer Is Serious. Pink Is Not.

Its author, Theresa Brown, argues that what’s become a very popular marketing campaign has blunted the disturbing reality of the disease and misconstrued the nuances of its struggle. “Pink is about femininity; cancer is about staying alive,” she writes.

As breast cancer grew in the mainstream consciousness, the campaign’s objective was watered down. What we’re left with now is a 31-day movement to empower women. Nothing wrong with that, other than the fact that it’s come at the sacrifice of the original message—a message that’s as relevant today as when the first pink ribbon was handed out almost three decades ago.

Brown is an oncology nurse turned hospice nurse. She was also recently diagnosed with breast cancer. So she appreciates the seriousness of the disease about as well as anyone can. She raises a deeper concern about making Breast Cancer Awareness Month a feminist cause: Not only is it not fully supporting the women diagnosed with breast cancer, it may be adding to their anxiety.

“Breast cancer, even when one has a good prognosis, always raises the possibility of mastectomy, a surgery that removes the patient’s disease but is also said to disfigure her in a way that can compromise her femininity,” Brown says. “The question that looms, reinforced by the ubiquitous pink, is whether a woman who has lost her breasts to mastectomy will still be a whole woman.”

Brown describes her breast cancer as “small, has the tumor markers most favorable for treatment (estrogen- and progesterone-positive, HER2-negative), and is very slow-growing.” Still, “The question never crossed my mind,” she writes. “I am not worried about losing my femininity to breast cancer surgery; I’m worried about losing my future to the disease.” That concern was expressed again and again, without even a slight deviation, among all the breast cancer patients who reached out to Brown after her diagnosis. Which is to say that we’ve veered much further off-target than it appears at first glance.

In an effort to create a community—a very admirable effort—that crosses genders, sexual orientations, races, ethnicities, and religions—destigmatizing the disease, in essence—we’re diminishing the harshness of the treatments, downplaying the threat of death, and nullifying the isolation that accompanies the ever-present anxiety that the cancer will spread or return. If it’s all in the name of making the message simpler to digest and, in turn, catch on, then it’s time to hit “reset” and consider who we’re sparing here.

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