Breast cancer awareness campaigns: can they cause harm?

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Photo for article on breast cancer awareness campaigns. Fat person with cool afro holds two melons over their breasts.

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Breast cancer awareness campaigns: can they cause harm? was originally published on Everyday Feminism.

Not all breast cancer awareness campaigns are created equal

Can breast cancer awareness campaigns cause harm? Yes and no. Some campaigns are brilliant and effective, others are really problematic.

For nearly two decades, October has been known as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Around this time of the year, the activism surrounding breast cancer spikes, and many breast cancer awareness campaigns receive a great deal of support.

There is no doubt that trying to eradicate breast cancer is a worthy cause. But, are all of these campaigns deserving of our support, or are some of them harmful?

Some breast cancer awareness campaigns are brilliant, and they manage to be effective without being oppressive. But other campaigns are really problematic.

It’s important that we examine these campaigns and call out their harmful behavior. If we truly want to support breast cancer patients the best we can, we need to be willing to reject campaigns that cause more harm than good.

Let’s look at four ways certain awareness campaigns are oppressive.

1. Some breast cancer awareness campaigns focus on breasts instead of patients

Save the tatas!” “Save second base!” “I love boobies!

Many awareness campaigns seem to focus on breasts instead of on cancer or, you know, on the patients themselves.

I get it: Breasts are great. This is, in part, what makes breast cancer activism so marketable. Breasts are sexualized without being too sexual; we can talk about them openly on national television and radio while still appealing to the heterosexual male gaze.

But this strong focus on breasts has a harmful effect.

In a sense, yes: Breast cancer is about breasts. But more importantly, breast cancer is about people

When we endorse slogans like, “Save second base” and use sexualized images of breasts to appeal to potential supporters, we’re sexually objectifying cancer patients.

Instead of saying that we should save a person’s life, we are saying that we should save a sexual act or a body part. Instead of saying that cancer is bad because it kills, we are saying that it’s bad because it takes away something that appeases the heterosexual male gaze.

In doing so, we’re pretty much reducing a person to the sexual gratification their body can provide. And that’s just not okay.

Focussing on breasts also has the effect of shaming some cancer patients. If we make breast cancer awareness all about saving breasts, what are we saying about breast cancer patients who’ve had mastectomies or, at least a part of, their breasts destroyed?

In those cases, their breasts weren’t ‘saved’– their breasts were sacrificed so that they could live. Reconstructive surgery isn’t always an option, so these people might not have the very thing that these campaigns glorify.

Breast cancer awareness campaigns that sexualize breasts instead of focusing on cancer patients value vitality over the humanity of patients. 

2. Some campaigns are gender-essentialist and cissexist

Through their rhetoric, images, and the use of pink, breast cancer awareness campaigns have come to equate breasts with womanhood and femininity. This is problematic on a number of levels.

Firstly, equating womanhood with breasts is extremely cissexist as it equates a secondary sex characteristic with gender. This is yet another example of society insisting that biology determines one’s gender. We know that isn’t true—and the proliferation of this misinformation results in the oppression and ‘othering’ of trans and gender non-conforming people.

Secondly, campaigns that do this are actually spreading a myth about breast cancer: the lie that women and only women get breast cancer.

This, simply, isn’t true. Yes, breast cancer disproportionately affects women. But what about people who have breasts but do not identify as women, like trans men and non-binary people? They get breast cancer too. Even cisgender men get breast cancer.

We need to call out the misrepresentation and marginalization of trans and gender non-conforming people in breast cancer awareness campaigns, especially since they’re statistically less likely to receive quality cancer treatment.

By using more gender-neutral language and imagery, campaigns can stop perpetuating the dangerous myth that only women get breast cancer.

3. Some breast cancer awareness campaigns misrepresent cancer

Although I’ve never personally had cancer, I have family members who have–or have had–cancer. Cancer is chronic pain, hair loss, fear, and sometimes death.

Women smiling, laughing, holding their unscarred breasts suggestively are really unrepresentative of cancer.

Am I saying that all cancer patients are, or should be, miserable all the time? Definitely not! Rather, I’m saying that the ‘feel-good’ breast campaigns often erase the reality of cancer.

Cancer is serious. But the advertising surrounding breast cancer is not.

Representing something as serious as cancer with low-substance, feel-good advertising not only fools people into thinking breast cancer isn’t serious  – it’s offensive to cancer patients and their loved ones.

Many have argued that the use of pink is strongly connected to the misrepresentation of cancer, and a recent study shows how the association of pink with breast cancer can be damaging.

Women who were socialized to associate pink, and other gender cues, with breast cancer were less likely to believe that they might eventually get it. In other words, pink makes people take breast cancer less seriously.

Sandy M. Fernandez points out:

“Pink is the quintessential female color,” says Margaret Welch, director of the Color Association of the United States. “The profile on pink is playful, life-affirming. We have studies as to its calming effect, its quieting effect, its lessening of stress. [Pastel pink] is a shade known to be health-giving; that’s why we have expressions like ‘in the pink.’ You can’t say a bad thing about it.” Pink is, in other words, everything cancer notably is not.

Of course, some cancer patients find cancer-related humor comforting and empowering. This is great – I fully support what makes them feel empowered.

Just as cancer patients and their loved ones have every right to be fearful and hurt by the presence of this disease in their lives, they have every right to be offended by the dangerous erasure of their experience when the vast majority of well-funded and well-supported campaigns focus on ‘feel-good’ messages.

4. Some breast cancer awareness campaigns exploit cancer for profit

Around October, many companies package their products in pink and pledge to donate money to anti-cancer organizations. They usually encourage consumers to buy their products by telling them their purchase will go towards breast cancer research.

And it works: These companies boost their sales by saying that they’re supporting breast cancer awareness.

But, sometimes, these companies do more harm than good. Many of these companies make a profit from the cause while producing carcinogenic products. 

Breast Cancer Action coined the term ‘pinkwasher’, which refers to “A company or organization that claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, but at the same time produces manufactures and/or sells products that are linked to the disease.”

Basically, they pretend to support those who were probably made ill by their products in order to make a profit. If you ask me, that’s flat-out exploitation.

In 2014, global fracking company Baker Hughes took pinkwashing to the extreme when they teamed up with anti-cancer organization Susan G. Komen For The Cure. Despite the fact that fracking produces a number of disease-causing chemicals, both companies claim to support cancer patients.

This is not the first time for Susan G. Komen–the organization once produced a perfume called Promise Me, which has since been discontinued. Promise Me contained a number of carcinogenic chemicals. Other known pinkwashers include Clinique, Estee Lauder, and Bobbi Brown.

If we truly hope to support cancer patients and prevent cancer, we need to be willing to ask ourselves difficult questions about the companies we support, such as whether they truly care about cancer patients or if they’re exploiting cancer patients in order to make a profit.

“But it raises awareness!”

Many people brush off concerns about awareness campaigns by saying, “Well, at least it creates awareness about breast cancer. Surely that’s a good thing.”

Awareness of a problem is, indeed, the first step in coming to solve it. But what exactly does cancer awareness mean?

Do these awareness campaigns add anything to our knowledge about breast cancer–knowledge that will result in cancer being detected earlier or enable us to support cancer patients better?

We need to examine what kind of awareness certain campaigns promote. We should not simply be aware that cancer exists–we need to know more about who it effects and how we can help them.

We should be aware of the pain and terror some cancer patients experience. We should be aware of the fact that poorer people are less likely to have access to effective cancer treatment. We should be aware of the fact that black women in the US are 40% more likely to die from breast cancer as white women. We should be aware of laws that enable companies to produce known carcinogens, and we should be aware of the obstacles that prevent people from seeking and receiving cancer treatment.

Awareness is important. And breast cancer patients deserve a lot better awareness than the recent “awareness campaigns” have been offering.

So what can we do?

While some breast cancer awareness campaigns are oppressive, others are less so.

If you want to support breast cancer patients and increase awareness, think critically about the campaigns you support that are run by for-profit companies. Are these companies producing potentially cancer-causing products? Are they donating it to a worthy organization, or are they unspecific about the recipients?

When it comes to awareness campaigns, think carefully about the kind of awareness you’re raising. Be mindful of whether the language and images you use is cissexist. Consider whether it perpetuates any myths surrounding cancer. Think about how cancer patients would feel about the campaigns.

Researching anti-cancer activism can be difficult and energy-consuming. But, as I said, if we truly want to support cancer patients, we need to be willing to do some difficult work to ensure that we’re not doing them more harm than good. 

After all, if our anti-cancer activism doesn’t center the patients, aren’t our values in the wrong place?



When we use sexualized images of breasts to appeal to potential supporters, we're sexually objectifying cancer patients.