Rethinking What It Means To Think Pink for Breast Cancer Awareness

Chances are, you know someone or are immediately related to someone that has been impacted by breast cancer in this lifetime. If you haven’t yet, the odds are that you will. After all, the American Cancer Society still predicts that based on current incidence rates, a woman has a 1 in 8 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime.

I can very clearly remember the first time breast cancer was on my radar. It was my 17th birthday, and I was sitting at one of my favorite restaurants having lunch with my mother when she got the call she’d been dreading: Her sister’s test results had come in, and it was breast cancer. Several years later, she’s currently a breast cancer survivor and I could not be more grateful for that.

As an alum of Zeta Tau Alpha fraternity, whose national philanthropy is breast cancer awareness and education, I’ve kept the cause very close to my heart for the last few years. I probably always will. Through the experience of being a member of ZTA, I had the privilege of getting to look at many sides of breast cancer. I saw the philanthropy side, as we raised over $30,000 per year for the organizations we partner with, and the impact those funds make. I also had the privilege of seeing the more personal side, as we hosted educational workshops with breast cancer survivors who spoke about their experience. We also got the medical side as well, with surgeons who educated us on the true risks we face (which is vital information, since chances are, at least 20 of us who were in the room will be diagnosed with breast cancer in our lifetime if the 1 in 8 indicator is true).  

October is a big month for Zetas. I will never forget my first experience with our 5K philanthropy (on the hosting side), when several members of a fraternity ran the entire 5K carrying backpacks full of rocks on their back. When asked why, they explained that they were running for a brother’s mom, and that the weight they were carrying is nothing compared to the weight women facing cancer treatment have to carry. It was a touching moment, and one that reiterates the good that comes out of all the breast cancer awareness fanfare each October when people come together to truly make a difference.  

5k pic one
Me, looking about as coordinated as I ever will while running our 5K last year.

That’s the hope of education and awareness: making people care, telling survivor stories, educating women on their risks and the importance of early detection, and the steps they can proactively take to decrease their risk.

But that’s not what “Breast Cancer Awareness Month” is about most of the time today. Instead, it’s focused on all pink everything, with little real attention being paid to actually supporting education or awareness.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the phrase “think pink,” and I wear a pink ribbon proudly on my jacket all year long. I also think it’s great that we raise millions of dollars that do go to educational programs, survivor recognition programs, and other efforts that make a true difference. And many great organizations also fundraise during October, and make a big impact as well through their efforts.

But if I see another person wearing something that says “save the tatas” or touting the phrase “save the boobs,” I actually might vomit. Breast cancer awareness movements aren’t just about saving women’s breasts; we’re trying to save their lives. Slogans like “save second base” plastered on the image of a hot girl aren’t helpful for raising awareness about the true harms associated with breast cancer; they just sexualize a disease that is very painful and does not feel pretty at all for the women living with it.  

5k two

We’ve become so inundated with “pink” products that we no longer stop to look where the donation is even going, if it goes anywhere at all. (Any company can put a pink ribbon on a product. That does not necessarily mean that any proceeds from your purchase go to a breast cancer research group). We don’t need to raise more awareness that breast cancer exists by stocking store shelves with pink water bottles and trendy t-shirts. We do need more awareness of the actual risks associated with breast cancer and the things that cause it, as well as a lot more education about early detection signs. We also need more resources like advanced mammogram technology, especially in lower income areas where women can’t access the women’s health resources they need to detect or treat breast cancer if they have it.  

What the over-abundance of pink products does do, however, is make it easy to feel like you’re supporting a cause that you might not actually be supporting at all. In fact, the vast majority of these products donate an abysmal amount of the proceeds to breast cancer research organizations—usually 1%, if that. And often the products themselves contain known carcinogens.

It’s also important to question whether a group is “thinking pink” because they genuinely want to help, or because it’s the popular thing to do and good for business. For example, I have a problem with our partnership with the National Football League, and our promotion of their “crucial catch” games. It’s laughable to me that the NFL spends money outfitting players, coaches, referees, and fields with pink ribbons and pink materials and sells pink merchandise to raise money for breast cancer screening resources and educational programs in underserved communities. Yes, every dollar counts, and they have raised $8 million for the American Cancer Society since 2009, which is great. But couldn’t an organization with an average annual revenue of at least $9 billion, I don’t know, just donate money to breast cancer research themselves? No, because breast cancer awareness month is too convenient of a bandwagon cause for corporations to jump onto since it’s good PR.  

Don’t let all the pink fool you into thinking that the NFL is committed to helping women’s health issues. If they truly were interested in that, they’d spend their money and resources combating the widespread domestic violence issues that the organization faces (by the way, October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, too).

My urge to the average consumer is this: think critically before you spend your money on supposed “pink” products. And consider making a donation to a reputable organization instead, just to be sure your money is actually going where it should be. There’s nothing wrong with supporting breast cancer education and awareness programs; it’s something I will continue doing for a very long time myself. But real change doesn’t happen by purchasing a pink ribbon clad product at your local grocery store; spend your money where it matters, and where you can make a true impact. Otherwise, “Breast Cancer Awareness Month” is just a pink cloud of distraction from real women’s health issues and other reputable causes, too.

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