I'm A Breast Cancer Survivor Who Loathes Breast Cancer Awareness Month

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Why This "Survivor" Isn’t All-In On Breast Cancer Awareness Month
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As a breast cancer survivor, I'm supposed to love Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Here's why I don't.

So, I know that I’m supposed to be "rah rah" about Breast Cancer Awareness Month (also known as BCAM). 

Most of my fellow survivors (and some friends and family who aren’t survivors) sport pink ribbons, sneakers, hats, shirts, sweaters, socks — you name it, and it’s pink — the entire month (and some even throughout the year). 

Yet, I can’t seem to get with the program. (Full disclosure: I do have one pink hat that was given to me and supports a foundation I like).

Why? For quite a few reasons:

1. We don’t need more "awareness".

This is going to be controversial, but I don’t see a need for so much "awareness". Seriously, how many people lack "awareness" about breast cancer? 

Additionally, the "awareness" campaign distracts us from what’s most important: finding more and better therapies to treat and cure breast cancer and how to prevent breast cancer in the first place.

Instead of so much discussion about being aware, let’s start talking about how to lower your risk of getting breast cancer. It may not be popular, but there are lifestyle factors that increase the risk and ways to lower the risk. 

And most of us aren’t doing ourselves any favors through the choices we’re making. 

Before you scream to me about how some are genetically predisposed, I get it. I happen to have one of the genetic mutations myself. But even for us BRCA girls, lifestyle choices can hurt or help us.

It’s time to start talking more openly and honestly about prevention.

Additionally, why not talk more about how you can help people fighting the disease and living with it? It's like they don't exist at all (more on that later). Plus, the hyper-focus on awareness amplifies an oversimplistic message — that all you need is to be more aware and you'll survive (because it assumes that you'll find it early enough).


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2. There is a lot of oversimplified and misleading information.

Public relations campaigns require simplicity and fundraising requires a story — one with a simple message that’s easy to understand. And BCAM is a fundraising public relations campaign. 

From the ability to get an early diagnosis through mammogram screenings (and what an early diagnosis means) to treatment options and survival rates, we’re oversimplifying an extremely complicated issue, leading to misinformation. 

Breast cancer isn’t one-size fits all. There's more than one type. Different types of cancer are treated with different drugs, radiation isn’t given to everyone and not everyone needs a mastectomy (or any surgery at all). And survival rates vary based on the type of cancer, the stage of the disease, and genetic factors.

Although early detection has increased the number of breast cancers that are being diagnosed at an earlier stage, this isn’t as helpful as we’d like to think. 

Did you know that, although deaths from breast cancer have gone slightly down, more young women are dying from metastatic breast cancer? Unfortunately, when you get breast cancer at a young age, it tends to be more aggressive.

We hear so much about how many women are catching their breast cancer early and how that saves lives that you’d think that means we’re "winning" the fight against breast cancer. 

I believed this too before my diagnosis.

But the reality is quite different. Many still die from breast cancer. Too many. And the survival rates are measured 5 years after the disease is first diagnosed — even though cancer recurs after the 5th year (and for some types of breast cancer, the recurrence risk increases over time).

Early detection also finds cancers that are small, slow-growing and aren’t likely to lead to death, which could be skewing the survival rate — making it look better than it really is. 

And these slow-growing cancers are often being treated the same as aggressive cancers. This means that some women are being overtreated.

Overtreatment isn’t something to shrug off. Chemotherapy and radiation both have negative long-term consequences and potential health risks, such as infertility, early menopause, heart damage, lung problems, and increased risk of leukemia and other cancers. And surgeries aren’t risk-free.

I’m not saying that early detection is a bust or that we shouldn’t treat people. In fact, I found my cancer very early (although not through a mammogram — I found my tumor myself). And my cancer was extremely aggressive. Had I not found it when I did, I wouldn’t be here now.

My point is that breast cancer treatment and prognosis is extremely complicated. And BCAM aids in oversimplifying a complex issue, causing people to be misinformed. 

3. There is an overemphasis on survivors.

As I mentioned above, people still die from breast cancer. And it bothers me that the month places so much emphasis on "survivors" and seemingly forgets about those fighting for their lives and those living with breast cancer forever (the metastatic patients).

First, let me be clear: many women who’ve fought breast cancer never consider themselves to be "survivors" (including yours truly). Because breast cancer can recur, even many years later.

There’s no way for someone who’s been treated for breast cancer to know with certainty that they’ve survived. At least, not until they die from something else. We live with the constant worry that it will come back.

More importantly, the month ignores the many that live with metastatic breast cancer and will never fall into the "survivor" category. 

When I went through treatment, I met several of these folks. They are fighters who live with purpose and passion every single day. And they don’t deserve to be left out.

And let’s face it, many of the BCAM-related promotions and ceremonies feel like pep rallies. Which is unseemly and makes me uncomfortable. It's a bit tacky to be so "rah rah" about breast cancer and its "survivors" when so many continue to die from it.

4. What makes breast cancer so special?

When I started chemotherapy, the first thing I noticed when I walked into the transfusion room was how many people were there. Very few of them had breast cancer. 

I met people with ovarian cancer, bone cancer, brain cancer, leukemia — you name it, and it was likely represented. And it didn’t matter what type of cancer they had. 

Yes, the treatment varied based on the type of cancer they had, but everyone I met was fighting for their lives. Most of us lost our hair.  We all felt terribly weak from our chemo. And each one of us wondered if we were dying (some even knew they were).

So, why the special emphasis on breast cancer? I’ve always been uncomfortable with that. Even more so now than I was before my diagnosis.

Cancer steals life, regardless of what kind of cancer it is. Breast cancer isn't special in that regard. 

All of them deserve "awareness" and money to go toward prevention, early detection, and research for a cure (which is why I'm happy the NFL has gotten away from purely supporting BCAM each October and has broadened their horizons).


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5. Buying pink products isn’t a good way to donate money to the cause.

When it comes to buying pink products, much of the cost doesn't go to research, screening, or even awareness and education campaigns. The "support" that those products provide to actual research is typically pennies on the dollar.

Before you purchase pink products, be sure you know where the money is going and how much of it gets donated. Ask and find out the answers to the following questions:

  • How much is really going to a charitable cause and which charitable cause?
  • How does the charity allocate this money?

Honestly, your money would be better spent by making a direct donation to a charity that will use most of it for research as opposed to overhead costs. And this way, you’ll have more control over who gets your money and how it’s used.

So, here is where I ask you to do something. Skip purchasing pink products and instead, donate funds directly to an organization that will use them in a way you want them to.  This means that you need to first consider which charities meet your needs.

To help you determine that (and see how the various charities measure up), go to CharityWatch or Charity Navigator. Both will help guide you to make the right decision for you – based on your priorities.


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Heather Moulder is an Executive, Career and Life Coach and founder of Course Correction Coaching. For tips and techniques on how to take control over and live a more meaningful life full of passion and happiness (and with real work-life balance), connect with Heather here.

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