"Awareness is Over": The Problem with Breast Cancer Awareness Month

From the NFL to the KFC, it seems like everyone has jumped on the Think Pink October train. Pink ribbons are everywhere you look, and breast cancer awareness runs rampant all month long. So why is it that so many of those afflicted by breast cancer are angry?

"Nothing about my disease was neatly tied in a pink bow," says AnnMarie Otis, breast cancer survivor and founder of the blog Stupid Dumb Breast Cancer. "I was left with such pain, depression and a scarred body. I am aware everyday of the year."

The problem with breast cancer awareness month: I am not cancer
Pictured: AnnMarie Otis of Stupid Dumb Breast Cancer.



What is Breast Cancer Awareness Month?

What is breast cancer awareness month?

Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM), otherwise known as Pink-Tober, is an annual campaign to raise awareness for breast cancer throughout the month of October. While the sentiment behind the campaign feels warm and thoughtful, many of the tactics designed to "support" breast cancer survivors end up leaving out the very people they are trying to help.

"Awareness is over. We are all aware," says AnnMarie. "We need truth and reality. We need to stop the deaths... That should be the focus."

"Awareness is over. We are all aware."



The Harmful Tactics of Pink-Tober Campaigns

You'll find two common threads that run through many breast cancer awareness advertisements: pink and boobs. These campaigns do more to trivialize breast cancer than they do to help those afflicted by the disease.

Harmful breast cancer marketing: save the tatas, I love boobies, and pink bras.

"Cancer is not sexy, not even a little," says AnnMarie. "If you search 'breast cancer awareness' on Instagram, you will get women in pink bikinis, 'Save the ta-tas' posts, but you will not get the truth."

"Cancer is not sexy, not even a little."

These ads may be pretty and cute, but they don't tell us anything about breast cancer and the distress and death it causes. Breast cancer awareness month puts breasts front and center and leaves the people behind them and their pain far in the background.  In a society that's obsessed with breasts, it's not hard to see how this happened. Indeed, BCAM has done a lot to contribute to the sexualization and trivialization of this life-taking disease. In fact, many are surprised to learn that approximately 42,260 people (41,760 women and 500 men) will die from breast cancer this year.

"Breast cancer is scary as hell," says AnnMarie. "Who wants to talk about the death, scars, burns from radiation, and all the aftermath? Society wants to tie a pretty pink ribbon and say you are 'cured.' I bought into that before my diagnosis. I was shaken to know people died from this."

"I was shaken to know people died from this."



Breast Cancer: A Consumer Brand

Breast cancer consumer brand
From the comic "Pink Ribbon Envy" by Adam Bessie and Dan Archer.

Unfortunately, the mantra of many companies during breast cancer awareness month isn't "educate, prevent, save a life"; it's "sell, sell, sell."

"Stop the 'save the cans,' 'don't slack, save the racks' utter bullsh**," AnnMarie says. "We have taken an illness that removes our breasts without warning, scars us, destroys our self confidence and made it sexy. How is that possible? Because sexy ads sell the pink junk and none of that money is going to research."

"Sexy ads sell the pink junk and none of the money is going to research."

Even the origins of the pink ribbon are rooted in commercialization. The first breast cancer awareness symbol was a peach colored ribbon created in the 90's by breast cancer survivor Charlotte Haley. Haley's small grassroots campaign used homemade peach ribbons to encourage legislators to allot more money to cancer prevention.

Charlotte Haley and her original peach breast cancer awareness ribbon.
Left: Charlotte Haley holding a handful of peach ribbons, each made by hand. Right: One of Haley's ribbons attached to its original message card.

The humble movement was taken over by big corporations when Estee Lauder and Self Magazine asked Haley for permission to use her ribbon. Haley, wanting to maintain the grassroots origins of the campaign, said no. Haley's refusal, however, did not deter the corporations. They simply changed the color of the ribbon from peach to pink to avoid legal complications, and the breast cancer awareness pink ribbon we know today was born.


What is Pinkwashing?

Today, many corporations take advantage of breast cancer awareness month through "pinkwashing," or using the pink ribbon and the color pink as a marketing technique in order to sell more products.

Pinkwashing: using pink ribbons as a marketing technique.
Estee Lauder was the first brand to use the pinkwashing technique.



"We Donate to Breast Cancer"

Donate to breast cancer

Due to pinkwashing, products adorned with pink ribbons (and pink things in general) have saturated the market in October in the name of breast cancer awareness. But the fact of the matter is, in many instances, the only one benefiting from the sales of pink merchandise is the seller. Many of these campaigns either do not donate any money to research, donate only a small percentage of proceeds to research, or do not donate to a reputable organization.

So how can you shop smart when it comes to Pink-Tober madness?

"Know where the pink crap goes to," says AnnMarie. "They are donating and racing for a cure, but the money does not go to research, so how are we going to stop deaths? Support research driven missions that are making strides, not races that are raising awareness for things we already know."

"Support research driven missions that are making strides, not races that are raising awareness for things we already know."


There are a few things you should look out for before becoming a benefactor to Pink-Tober campaigns:


1. Is there a donation cap?

Sometimes, there may be a cap to the amount of money donated. For example, a company may donate 10% of proceeds from every purchase of a product to breast cancer research, but cap the donations after 100 sales. That means the same amount of money will be donated whether 100 or 1000 products are purchased. Furthermore, that could mean the money you spend might not be donated at all.


2. Look for Specifics 

In some cases, marketers simply claim a portion of profits go to breast cancer/breast cancer awareness. This is problematic because 1) the percentage of the proceeds is not specified, and 2) the organization is not specified. Always look for specifics before becoming a patron.


3. Research Organizations

Before donating or purchasing a product where proceeds go to breast cancer research, make sure you research the organization first. Even if 100% of the proceeds from your purchase go to breast cancer research, the organization receiving the donations may only use a small portion of donations on cancer research and prevention. In other words, your money could be going to advertising or even paying the salary of an organization's CEO instead of actually helping those afflicted by cancer. For instance, the American Cancer Society (ACS) is often considered the world’s wealthiest nonprofit institution, and the CEO makes over $934,000 annually (not including benefits).



Survivors Reclaiming the Pink Ribbon

Reclaiming the pink ribbon: survivors taking back the pink cancer ribbon.
AnnMarie Otis shared with us that she has a pink ribbon tattooed on her foot (pictured).

Given the commercialization of the pink ribbon and the overall sexualization of breast cancer, many survivors feel that the pink ribbon should be eliminated entirely. AnnMarie takes a different approach.

"I think we should see the truth behind [the pink ribbon]," she says. "The ribbon is not the enemy, the marketing is. Some embrace the ribbon and use it as a catalyst to talk about the issues. Some despise it and it sets them off. Neither is wrong and we should not judge each other for our reactions and emotions."

"The ribbon is not the enemy, the marketing is."

As AnnMarie says, the pink ribbon can be a way to talk about the real issues breast cancer fighters and survivors face—not just a way for companies to make more money. The pink ribbon has the potential to open the door to discussion.

AnnMarie believes "more raw images done in a beautiful, artistic way" could change the oversexualized way breast cancer is represented in media and advertising. "Show the realness, but soften it just enough so people look. Listen to the stories of women and men dying of this disease and respect their anger."


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A post shared by Annmarie Otis (@stupiddumbbreastcancer) on

Ultimately, awareness is not enough. Changes need to be made. We need to honor people with breast cancer in a respectful and meaningful way, and we need to make efforts to cure breast cancer, not just bring awareness to an already-prolific disease.

"Please understand we are angry," concludes AnnMarie. "Our friends are dying, and this month highlights the pain. The ads that are careless are truthfully hurtful. Until we stop our friends from dying, we can not stop being angry. And the reality is that is OK, this disease is filled with anger. Get angry with us!"

"This disease is filled with anger. Get angry with us!"



We want to extend a special thank you to AnnMarie Otis of Stupid Dumb Breast Cancer for her invaluable contribution to this article. Make sure to check out her blog here, and follow her on social media. 

Instagram: @stupiddumbbreastcancer

Facebook: @stupiddumbbreastcancer



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