October is upon us, which means the world is about get a whole lot more pink. It’s as predictable as the return of pumpkin spice lattes and decorative gourds: ‘Tis the season for plastering a pink ribbon on everything from socks to skincare products, all in the name of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
But a lot has changed since the monthlong event was dreamed up in the 1980s. With 1 in 8 women diagnosed with breast cancer, almost everyone knows someone affected by the disease. I was diagnosed with it at the end of September when I was 28, meaning that my first rounds of chemotherapy were punctuated with pink ribbon sightings: at the pharmacy, on the street, in store windows.
They were the constant reminder I did not need. Most people — especially those of us who have lived with the disease — are plenty aware of breast cancer. The question is: What we can do about it?
Breast cancer: the brand
Breast cancer is a unique case study in disease branding. Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM), launched in 1985 by the American Cancer Society and Imperial Chemical Industries (now part of AstraZeneca, which makes several breast cancer drugs), was originally intended to encourage women to get regular mammograms. The momentum around breast cancer awareness continued in the early 1990s, when Evelyn Lauder (of Estée Lauder) established the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and solidified the pink ribbon as a universal symbol for the disease. The rest, as they say, is (very pink, very sparkly) history.
You might ask: A month dedicated to raising awareness for a pressing challenge in modern health care — what could possibly be wrong with that?
The answer is, to borrow a term coined by Breast Cancer Action, “pinkwashing.” What began as a strategic, research-driven, and ultimately effective fundraising approach has been co-opted by many in the name of profit.
Throughout the month of October, companies eager to drive sales plaster their products with pink ribbons and inspirational quotes. The best of them contribute all or a significant percentage of the proceeds to the cause. Many others commit nominal amounts — or nothing at all. Breast cancer survivors are flooded with requests to participate in corporate campaigns, often with no promise of compensation.
To be sure, Breast Cancer Awareness Month has done a lot of good over the past 35 years. But it’s far past time to reevaluate how it can benefit — and not harm — the patients who need it most. The good news is that there is a lot that individuals can do to shift the narrative around BCAM.
Buy only pink products that contribute a substantial amount to research. If a company peddling its pink-ribboned-sneaker donates just 5% of the proceeds to research, pass on that purchase and instead identify companies that direct a substantial portion to breast cancer organizations — many generously donate 100%. If you catch a company promoting pink products with no transparency around where the funds are going, reach out and push back.
Contribute to small businesses run by breast cancer survivors. Financial toxicity is an important and harmful side effect of breast cancer treatment, and one that survivors can live with for the rest of their lives. Instead of buying pink products from major corporations, search for small businesses run by survivor-entrepreneurs and consider making purchases from them this October — and beyond. There are many options out there, particularly in product areas commonly associated with BCAM, such as cosmetics and apparel.
Donate directly to research, and flag your donation for disparities. With the abundance of breast cancer awareness products on the market, it can be easy to forget that donations don’t require an intermediary. Reach out directly to esteemed cancer research organizations, such as your local cancer center, and make a donation. Even better, call or email to see if you can donate to specific initiatives, such as those dedicated to reducing racial disparities in breast cancer outcomes, which is one of the most pressing issues facing this community today.
Don’t just be aware of the disease. Be aware of us. In the midst of the pink madness, it can be easy to forget what breast cancer really is: an ugly disease that takes the lives of far too many people each year. In the U.S. alone, nearly 4 million people — mostly women, but men can develop breast cancer, too — have a history of breast cancer. Don’t get me wrong: We want as many people as possible to be aware of this cause. But we are more than pink ribbons, more than the statistics you see adorning the October campaigns.
If someone in your life is affected by breast cancer, check in on them this month. See how they are faring with the constant reminders. If they want to participate in BCAM activities, that’s great — but follow their lead.
Moving from awareness to action
On Sept. 30, President Biden officially proclaimed October 2021 as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. “I encourage citizens, government agencies, private businesses, nonprofit organizations, and other interested groups,” he stated, “to join in activities that will increase awareness of what Americans can do to prevent and control breast cancer, and pay tribute to those who have lost their lives to this disease.”
As a survivor, there is something special about seeing breast cancer assume the national stage, flanked by the presidential seal. But next year and in the years to come, I hope to see us move beyond awareness to action. We’re plenty aware. Now let’s get to work.
Hil Moss is an MBA/MPH candidate at Yale University, a breast cancer survivor and advocate, and a consultant to companies on patient-centered innovation.