More than a pink ribbon - How to really support breast cancer awareness
I have a complicated relationship with Breast Cancer Awareness Month. While I appreciate the great intentions that most organizations and brands have with regard to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, some of the "pinkwashing" makes me cringe. I hate that breast cancer is marketed in glamorous ways and as the "pretty cancer" during the month of October, as if it's more glamorous or worthy of attention than other types of cancer. I especially hate that some brands take advantage of Breast Cancer Awareness Month as a marketing ploy, making lots of profit off of pink merchandise with little to no percentage of the money going toward reputable research, care, and prevention funding.
I've waited until the last day of October to post this partially because there's a TON of other Breast Cancer Awareness content out there, and partially because it's more than just a month, a color, or a ribbon. To me, it's about making smart investments with the money you donate, knowing and taking care of your body, and helping to get the right resources to the people who need it most.
Here's my advice for helping to making a real impact in future "Pink-tobers" and throughout the whole year:
Donate where funds are most needed
1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer - that's almost 13% of women. It's a huge issue and fortunately it gets a lot of attention and awareness. However, most of the attention and awareness is on early stage breast cancer. The reality is that breast cancer is only fatal when it reaches metastasis - meaning it has spread to other organs such as the lungs, liver, brain, or bones. Catching breast cancer as early as possible and finding targeted therapies to use on those early stage cancers is absolutely critical to increasing survival by reducing the risk of metastasis. Words cannot describe how grateful I am for the research that has gone into the targeted therapies I benefitted from (Herceptin and Perjeta). I had a very aggressive type of breast cancer that had already moved to my lymph nodes when I was diagnosed - with this type, I am acutely aware that it could have progressed from Stage 2 to Stage 4 (meaning the cancer metastasized) in a short period of time.
While I have personally benefitted from the focus that's been placed on early stage breast cancers, I recognize that MUCH more focus needs to be placed on metastatic breast cancer if we truly want to improve survival and find a cure. On average, breast cancer fundraising efforts only contribute an average of 2% of funding to research focusing on metastasis. This needs to change, because metastasis causes 100% of all breast cancer deaths and impacts close to 30% of women who are initially diagnosed with an early stage breast cancer. There is no cure for it right now and much more needs to be done to improve quality of life, but I also want to mention that some people can live for decades with Stage 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) and some researchers think that with advances in medicine, it could become a chronic condition rather than a fatal disease. Imagine how many more women could live full lives with MBC if more research and focus was placed on it.
Donating to support early detection and prevention is still incredibly important, but I want to help put a spotlight on where resources are needed most. Here are my recommendations for donating to help move the needle on MBC research:
Donate to METAvivor: METAvivor's mission is focused on those living with MBC. They are the only organization in the US that exclusively funds MBC research through a scientific peer-review process. Their goal is to have cancer organizations devote 30% of their research budget to research that will help the 30% of women and men whose cancer metastasizes. I highly recommend donating to METAvivor!
Donate to other targeted funds that focus on MBC research: Fortunately, it seems like more of the large fundraising efforts are starting to put more of a focus on MBC. For example, it looks like Susan G. Komen now has four MBC-specific research funds that you can choose to donate to, and are offering dollar-for-dollar donation matching. Some people love Komen, and others have strong opinions. I wanted to share this information for those of you who like supporting Komen - it looks like these MBC-focused funds haven't raised that much money yet, so I urge you to check out these funds.
Think before you buy pink
I am not the type to wear lots of pink ribbons, but if you are - go for it! I am all about spreading awareness and demonstrating support. However, next October (or throughout the year) when you see lots of pink marketing for breast cancer awareness, stop and ask a few questions before you buy:
What percentage of this sale is actually being donated, if any?
How are these funds being used? Are they going to reputable research, advocacy, or support organizations?
Is there a cap or maximum amount that the organization will donate, and has this limit already been met?
Does this product put you or someone you love at higher risk for cancer or other health issues? (e.g., products with known harmful toxins)
Does this seem like more of a marketing ploy to sell products than a genuine interest in advancing breast cancer research?
If you are already going to buy something, and you have the choice to buy a version of it that supports breast cancer research, GREAT! However, if you want to donate - I suggest donating to a specific fund directly to make a greater impact.
Also - know your audience. There are a LOT of mixed opinions among those living with or beyond breast cancer on wearing lots of pink and ribbons - some people love it and feel very empowered by wearing it, others want nothing to do with it, and some people's opinions fluctuate over time. There's no right answer, but if you are going to buy something pink or breast cancer-branded for a current patient or survivor - perhaps check in with them to see how they feel about it.
Know your body
Like I said further up on the page - early detection can save lives. I found the lump in my breast by accident, but thank God I did because my cancer would have progressed very quickly. In fact, Young Survival Coalition reports that up to 80% of women under the age of 40 who are diagnosed with breast cancer find the breast abnormality themselves. It's less about doing self-exams to search for cancer, and more about feeling your body to get to know it better and to understand what's normal for YOU. The more we know our bodies and the more in touch we are with our intuition, the easier it will be for us to identify when something is off. Here are some of my tips:
Set a reminder in your calendar to check your lovely lady lumps monthly. It takes just a few minutes! Follow me on Instagram to see my monthly "Feel it on the First" reminders, and you can also text "BRIGHT" to 59227 to receive monthly breast health reminders via text message from the organization Bright Pink.
Use the self-exam as a way to get to know your body better – the more you know what “normal” feels like for your breasts, the easier it will be for you to detect abnormalities. Try to do it from a place of love and self-care rather than from a place of fear.
Check yourself around the same time every month – our breasts can fluctuate, so checking them at the same time will make it easier to distinguish an abnormal change.
Don’t freak out if you find something suspicious! More often than not, it’s not cancer and it’s not helpful to worry without having all the information. Schedule some time with your gynecologist to get it checked out.