If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Sunday, October 18, 2009


October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. There are many "Awareness" campaigns that are assigned to individual months, weeks, or days but the breast cancer campaign, with its trademark pink ribbon and fun runs, is the one people know best. We are very aware of breast cancer in October.

I am particular aware of breast cancer this year. My mother was diagnosed and treated this summer as was b's aunt. More recently a blogger buddy of mine was diagnosed and has just had surgery. In addition my research assistant is struggling to accept her mother's recent diagnosis of a brain tumor not yet five years after her treatment for breast cancer. Breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women (non-melanoma skin cancer is #1) and the second leading cause of cancer death (lung cancer is #1) for women in this country. It is the seventh leading cause of death among women. I say all of this as a caveat for everything else I'm about to say in this post. I recognize, personally and statistically, that breast cancer is an important health issue for women, yet I am anti-pink ribbon.

I'm not going to go into all of the reasons why the pink ribbon itself or campaigns such as "Save the Ta-Ta's" or "Feel Your Boobies" bothers me because there is an excellent book already written on the subject of breast cancer and cause marketing. Barbara Ehrenreich's Welcome To Cancerland also describes much of my frustration with the culture of breast cancer.

My mother, after surgery and radiation were over and life was--relatively--back to normal, was feeling very blue. The reality of living with a cancer diagnosis was just sinking in. What she was telling me reminded me of a post I had recently read, so I shared it with her. But it also made me wonder if, due to all this awareness, it has become too normalized? When I first moved down to SouthLite a colleague was diagnosed and undergoing treatment. I met many women across campus and in the community who, in discussing this woman's situation. talked about their own treatment. The manner in which they presented it sounded like it was a rite of passage. I wonder if this acceptance of breast cancer as a common event has made it easier or harder for women to process the gravity of the diagnosis?

My mother's treatment was seamlessly coordinated and she was handled with both respect and care. I am thrilled that she had that experience and I think we can thank the awareness campaign, in part, for the fact that these systems are now in place. However breast cancer also has huge disparities by race and class that are not highlighted by the awareness campaign. For instance, more White women are diagnosed with breast cancer but more Black women die from it. As I sat in the doctor's suite with my mother, I couldn't help but wonder if everyone has the same access to this type of care. This isn't a subject I hear much about in the campaign. Perhaps this could be the next step in promoting "awareness"?

As I mentioned, there are a lot of awareness campaigns out there because there are a lot of issues that need our attention. There are more campaigns than there are months, so they are forced to share. Breast cancer awareness shares the month of October with domestic violence awareness. The domestic violence awareness campaign is symbolized by a purple ribbon. Pink symbolizes femininity and Ehrenreich's piece has a lot to say on the feminization of breast cancer. What does purple symbolize? b says bruises. I prefer to think of the purple heart, but neither is a very satisfying thought.

The statistics on domestic violence are staggering. As prevalent as breast cancer is, domestic violence reaches into the lives of women and families at a far more alarming rate. One in four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime and, unlike breast cancer, the support system for treating the effects are seriously underfunded. Another blogger buddy, jo(e), has been seeing the effects play out very close to her home. These stories happen in every town but rarely get told.

While I don't think it is helpful to make social problems compete with one another and that is not my intent with this post, I do think it is important to question why we can be comfortable supporting and talking about breast cancer but not domestic violence.


drax said...

You will find this of interest:


~profgrrrrl~ said...

I agree that social problems should not compete with each other.

My take on this situation is that we can't talk about domestic violence because of the blame and shame factor: Do we blame the abuser? The abused? The abuser's abusers? It's all very complex, but somewhere there's someone to blame! And who should bear the shame?

With breast cancer, there's no one to blame and no shame to be had. It is, and it is what it is. That makes it a lot easier to talk about. We can get angry at a disease, and not have to think about the disease as someone's parent or consider what caused the disease to be so diseasy. We can talk about it and complain about it and no one will be accused or arrested or shamed.

leaningtowardthesun said...

Thanks for this post, right on time indeed as I'm starting to be bombarded with pink cupcakes and the like.
You raise some very important yet overlooked questions. I don’t know if I can fully comprehend why we still have trouble standing up for domestic violence victims. I agree with profgrrrr about the blame and shame issues of domestic violence-cancer is nebulous and without a face. We see a similar blame and shame game with HIV infection but in this case there is someone who society can blame possibly for what many view as a sexual indiscretion.
I have noticed that with cancer many survivors, particularly breast cancer survivors, develop a sense of power over cancer and camaraderie with other survivors. It seems to be such a difficult fight and sharing stories with those who have the same experience is helpful. I am not altogether sure, but I think the way we view cancer has changed in that we encourage people to share their stories, to continue fighting, and to participate in these awareness events. But I don’t think that you have to wonder if everyone has equal access to win their fight. The numbers say that they don’t and I’m sure the stories reflect this. The numbers also say that the sort of awareness that you are seeking for all is not happening across cancers. This reminds me of a few years ago when I interviewed a young man on campus about prostate cancer and he said "We don't have a month for that".

Julie said...

This is an excellent post. I've wondered the same things. My grandmother tells me that breast cancer used to be thought of as a "shameful" thing that people didn't talk about. The shame seems odd to me, but that's the way it was. So on the one hand, if people are now more educated due to the effort of groups, that's good. Awareness also helps raise funding for research, treatment, etc.

On the other hand, your post reminds me of an incident that bothered me. While waiting for lunch in a cafe, the waitress apologized for slow service and said she had been very busy with the "breast cancer ladies" who came in for lunch. I looked across the room, and there was a table of women in pink shirts.

I'm not criticizing the waitress. She was a very nice and hardworking person. I'm not criticizing the women in pink, either. But that one phrase, "breast cancer ladies," seemed odd. It bothered me. I wondered if I was just overly sensitive to words. But the way she said "breast cancer ladies" felt like she was saying "ladies' knitting circle" or "ladies' tea party." I don't even know if I'm making sense here. It just felt unintentionally trivialized. Your post has made me interested to read more. I will check out the links you have here. Thank you!