“Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November . . .” the rhyme reminds me, as it has done countless times before, that October has thirty-one days, and it is just around the corner. Thirty one days to make us all impossibly more aware of breast cancer. And then it will be November 1st, and everyone will go back to work, the pink ribbons removed from their lapels. I will breathe a sign of relief. I will, of course, still have breast cancer.
I am an unwilling conscript to this battle against breast cancer. Sometimes I feel as though I am holding my breath, wondering as I did forty years ago if the bomb scare in Marks and Spencers on Belfast's Royal Avenue, is just that. A scare. A hoax. Except in my world today, the suspicious devices come in the form of tumors and test results, in waiting and worrying, in scheduling more time to spend in waiting rooms. The whole sorry business saps my energy. I have things to do. Mundane things, but they matter nonetheless – laundry and shopping. I like my clothes clean and the refrigerator stocked.
For eleven months of the year, reconnaissance missions to the dry-cleaners or the grocery store pass without incident. No camouflage is necessary and only minimal intelligence required. But in October, my mission is to navigate the Safeway checkout line without being hijacked by a well-meaning cashier who, dispassionately, will ask me to donate a dollar for breast cancer. If I say yes, she will bellow into the intercom, “I just got a donation for Breast Cancer. Can I get a Woo Hoo?” And, as they scan coupons and fill bags, paper or plastic, with other people’s groceries, a chorus of cashiers and bag-boys will, as automatons, respond, “Woo Hoo!” and I will flee. I will feel only slightly guilty that I asked how much of my dollar would support breast cancer research, knowing that my question rendered her uncomfortable. But I will be more concerned that she has not been told how to answer my question except with a receipt and a “Have a nice day!” The young woman at the cash register is caught in the same trap with me – woo-hoo!
There are other grocery stores, less pink-ified, but they are few and far between. Even speciality stores are dressed out in pink, in an almost festive observance of breast cancer awareness month – a veritable breast fest. Bizarrely, this brings to mind Loyalist areas in the Northern Ireland of my childhood. In anticipation of “marching” season, Union Jacks and flags bearing a red hand hung out from bedroom windows of council houses, proclaiming allegiance to the Crown. Red, white, and blue bunting stretched from house to house, and pavement curbs were roughly painted in homage to British rule. Slogans spray-painted on otherwise scrubbed gable walls, echoed an imperative “Belfast Says No” that hung above the city’s hall in the 1980s and in our faces. It was unavoidable even for those of us who wanted to remain anonymous, ordinary people for whom the moral imperative was peace. Boldly marking territory in no uncertain terms, those banners and badges were divisive, as incendiary as the booby-trapped cars that lay in wait for the part-time police officer who, in a hurry to get home for a birthday celebration, failed to check under his car before turning the key in the ignition.
Perhaps it is over-wrought to compare breast cancer awareness campaigns to shows of loyalist strength that often culminated in sectarian violence and murder. Personally, I find a legitimate link. The bunting that zig-zagged across the skies of the Shankill Road is not much different from the arch of balloons floating above last year’s “KomenPhoenix2012″ finish Line in downtown Phoenix. I did not participate, much to the chagrin of acquaintances who know I have breast cancer. Why wasn’t I part of Komen’s “circle of promise?” they asked. Couldn’t I tap into the power of positive thinking? Why do I have to be so negative about breast cancer? Come on! Can’t you ferret out a silver lining? Make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? ”Imagine a life without breast cancer!” the Susan G. Komen Foundation urges me. Alright. I imagine it every morning when I wake up or when I push to the back of my mind the possibility that the twinge in my hip is a harbinger of recurrence. I imagined it during an unguarded moment in Bed, Bath and Beyond, the sole item on my agenda, a new duvet cover. I had barely crossed the threshold, when I was told to Fight like a Girl:
Even the tic tacs on display were pink, as was the pasta and the over-priced machine used to make it. I did my due diligence and visited the The Pasta Shoppe website, where I learned that 10% of proceeds from the sale of fun-shaped pasta will go directly to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
Susan G. Komen was only 36 years old when she was killed by metastatic breast cancer In the blink of an eye, just three years, it ravaged her body. The organization subsequently established by her sister, however, has failed to appropriately address the kind of cancer that killed her. Instead, the Komen foundation has relentlessly emphasized early detection and awareness. Sealed it with a pink ribbon, it is just not good enough. Not for me. Not for my daughter. Nor yours.
What would Susan G. Komen say about our progress, or Rachel Carson, who fifty years ago, warned us about pesticides and their link to cancer. Breast cancer killed her too. She would have something to say, I know, about last year’s limited edition pink ribbon tic tacs. While I do not know how much of the tic tac proceeds went towards breast cancer research, I know they contain corn gluten, which is cause for concern. For Susan and for Rachel, for you and for me, Breast Cancer Action urges us to ask these Critical Questions Before You Buy Pink:
- Does any money from this purchase go to support breast cancer programs? How much?
- What organization will get the money? What will they do with the funds, and how do these programs turn the tide of the breast cancer epidemic?
- Is there a “cap” on the amount the company will donate? Has this maximum donation already been met? Can you tell?
- Does this purchase put you or someone you love at risk for exposure to toxins linked to breast cancer? What is the company doing to ensure that its products are not contributing to the breast cancer epidemic?
Breast cancer can no longer be covered up with pink ribbon purchases that manipulate us into feeling good about ourselves. The epidemic has been trivialized, glamorized, feminized. In October, it is more about the boobies and less about the disease. The slogans and the pink wristbands, the trappings of breast cancer are as acceptable as fashion accessories. For thirty-one days, we are told “to save the tatas” and reminded to “feel the boobies.” Baby-talk, sugar and spice and all things nice, the stuff of fairy-tales. Even the President of the United States will sport a pink breast cancer awareness bracelet.
I may be way off the mark, but somehow I cannot imagine our nation in the grip of a “Feel my Balls” campaign. Can you? America is confounded by sex and gender; thus, guarantees of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone, ring hollow. Somewhere within the ‘Spaghetti Junction’ of stories that spin to advance political agendas and generate massive profits, lies the truth about the way things are and how they appear to be. A glamorous pink ribbon wrapped around an Estee Lauder model seems more socially palatable than a bald and fragile, vomiting cancer patient in the throes of yet another grueling, poisonous chemotherapy treatment. And then there are the men with breast cancer. What about them?
Confronting the chilling reality of breast cancer is non-negotiable. It is time to ask the questions that will quell the rising tide and to demand answers, to hold accountable those in power to mandate mandate meaningful action, beyond the breasts and into research of the cancer that kills.
It was a decade ago when BBC News reported that then United States Attorney General, John Ashcroft, asked the United States Department of Justice to shell out $8,000 for drapes to cover up the exposed right breast of The Spirit of Justice statue. The offending art-deco figure was often photographed behind him while he spoke to the media. Was it too life-like? Would a pink ribbon in front of the White House have been more acceptable? Regrettably, I think it might.
Breast cancer is ugly, and it hurts. Awareness campaigns hurt too, especially when they focus on the same old stories of early detection and treatment regimens that have been prescribed for decades – some combination of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy.
So what will you do this October? How will you navigate the sophisticated booby-traps all around you? Be vigilant. Don’t fall for it just because of the nice pink ribbon. Ask questions. It’s not about the boobs . . .
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