Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Beyond the Gimmicks
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and it seems to be everywhere you turn. Players in the NFL don pink shoes. Companies offer limited editions of products in pink. Facebook statuses become awash with cryptic messages for awareness.
I, like many out there, worry about how commercial awareness has become, about the best way to monetarily support and fund research, and about what message Breast Cancer Awareness Month truly sends.
The Jewish Women’s Archive has written a lot about the month in the past, much of our take being critical. Leah Berkenwald took the "Save the ta-tas!" movement to task a few years ago on our blog with a very succinct argument, “It reduces women to boobs. Breast Cancer research is not, and should not be, an effort to save boobs, but an effort to save lives.”
Leah’s words were running marathons through my mind yesterday when I joined many in the Boston community to kick off the second annual Male Breast Cancer Awareness Week at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. I attended the event for a few reasons: the first, and most important, to support a friend who was battling male breast cancer. The second reason was to participate in Breast Cancer Awareness Month on its most basic level—to make myself aware. I didn’t know much about male breast cancer, but I did know that if I was ready to criticize the “awareness machine,” I needed to do my part in terms of my own knowledge.
Here’s what I learned: male breast cancer affects 2,240 men a year. While male breast cancer accounts for only 1% of all breast cancer diagnoses, one out of every four men diagnosed die each year. In women, partially because of the success of our awareness and eye towards early detection, the rate is one in 36. Due to lack of awareness, many instances of male breast cancer are not detected until the disease has progressed—unfortunately, often to a stage where it is incurable.
The truth of the matter is, when it comes to breast cancer early detection is incredibly important—bottom line. Sitting at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, I felt more emotions than I can express here. The building was beautiful, but I felt sadness—my own and others—creeping in everywhere. I don’t need to be made aware about cancer; personal loss has taken care of that for me. But thinking about male breast cancer—and the lack of awareness around its early detection and the need to find a way to be comfortable speaking about the disease—seemed like a time warp back to a conversation about breast cancer that didn’t involve ta-tas, titties, or boobies.
Breast Cancer Awareness Month employs some tactics that I find problematic—but the cause is important for all of us.
The conversation is one that needs to be had.
We need to move past the shock-tactics of declaring our love of ta-tas and move into a conversation about how we can offer screening and care to those who don’t have access to it. We need to have conversations that don’t exclude men, but instead discuss the real importance of awareness for everyone. We need to make breast cancer awareness about saving lives, not putting sexualized versions of female anatomy on pedestals.