Monday 24 March 2014

Raising The Pink Bar

There is currently a facebook campaign where women are encouraged to take a 'selfie' without makeup, post to their wall and then nominate other women to do the same. All of this in the name of raising awareness about breast cancer. There was a similar campaign a few years ago but in that case women were asked to post the colour and material of their bra, again to raise awareness about breast cancer. While the intent behind this most recent campaign is a worthy one, the idea itself, much like my bra in the previous campaign, is a bit of a stretch.

I think what this current campaign does raise awareness about is inner versus outer beauty, which is always a good thing, but beyond that I'm confused about how it contributes to breast cancer awareness. One of my facebook friends took her nomination and instead of posting a make-up-free selfie, posted a chart of visual symptoms of breast cancer. This makes more sense to me, but let's face it, if there is one disease that does not need help in raising awareness it's breast cancer.

You can hardly walk into a store without finding a tool, appliance, piece of clothing or food package that does not have the pink ribbon emblazoned on it. This means the company that makes the product either supports breast cancer initiatives, donates a percentage of the proceeds from the sale of the item to cancer research, or both. While the pink ribbon campaign has successfully raised awareness, along with billions of dollars, there is actually very little to show for that money in terms of learning the cause and prevention of breast cancer. Until we do that, no walk, run, swim, or anything-a-thon is going to find a cure.

Breast cancer awareness month is in October where everything from Niagara Falls to the Parliament Buildings is lit up in pink, new pink products are launched and there is a "fill in the blank" for the cure every weekend. During this time we hear about how much money has gone into or been donated to breast cancer research but we hear little about what research has actually been done. And, what few people realize is that only a small percentage of this money is spent on metastatic (or stage 4) breast cancer. No one dies from primary breast cancer and yet this is still where awareness, funding and research is focused.

One day of the whole month of October is designated as Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day. There is no research being funded that I could find that looks at what kinds of cancer metastasizes, why it metastasizes, and how it can be prevented. In Canada, 10% of the almost 24,000 women diagnosed annually with breast cancer will go on to be diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Around 97% of those will die from it, most within the first five years of diagnosis. Despite all the awareness and money raised we don't know why this happens or how to prevent it. None of the brochures, websites or videos that I looked at when I was initially diagnosed mentioned metastatic breast cancer. Now that I have it, it's even harder to find information, especially anything Canadian-based. The few groups that do exist to provide support and information about breast cancer metastasis call this the 'elephant in the pink room.'

Pink Ribbons Inc. is a documentary worth watching if you want to learn more about the breast cancer awareness-raising culture. You'll learn that some companies spend more on the advertising of their breast cancer support than they do on what they donate. It's a feel-good cause that everyone wants to be part of and advertisers have jumped on that from the beginning. The documentary talks about the warm, fuzzy, pretty aspect of 'thinking pink' when in reality there is nothing comforting or pretty about breast cancer. You'll learn about some cosmetic companies who are amongst the largest breast cancer awareness sponsors and yet have products such as nail polish, hair dye and make up that contain chemicals linked to cancer (perhaps going make-up free is not a bad idea).

Even knowing all this I still find it hard to know what to do about it. I have golf balls, t-shirts and calendars that all have the pink ribbon stamp. For me and my family it is not a universal logo of awareness or fundraising but a symbol of the disease I am living with (not dying from). My youngest daughter designed her own beautiful tattoo that incorporates the breast cancer ribbon so that she can be reminded daily of the challenges we face as a family but also of the hope we have in our future. For these reasons the pink ribbon will always stand for something that should never be dropped from public consciousness.

However, I do make decisions differently now, with an eye on how I can do my part to raise awareness and funds about the stage of breast cancer that doesn't get talked about enough. When shopping, if I come across the same item for the same price and one has the pink ribbon on it I am still more apt to buy that one, but I am also more apt to email the company later with some questions. I might ask them exactly what research has been funded with their donated money and I will definitely encourage them to consider earmarking their funds towards metastatic breast cancer. I've stopped donating to the countless events to end breast cancer because I know that we'll never end breast cancer until we figure out how to stop it from metastasizing. To do that we need to have events that focus on raising awareness and money about that. One such event was held in Paisley last fall---a grassroots evening of music called 'Dancing With Elephants' where I was fortunate to meet a new friend and someone who is also living with metastatic breast cancer. I hope that event will continue to be an annual one and will be one of many more I can support.

For those also skeptical about where their donated money is going when they write cheques to large foundations or events, keep it simple by keeping it local. There are so many cancer patients in our own community who can benefit from the generosity of your time and money. You can volunteer to drive them to treatments and appointments. Gas cards to help with travel expenses or gift cards to a local pharmacy are also a good idea. Some drugs may be covered by the government or private insurers but there are so many additional over-the-counter items such as pain relievers, mouth washes, stool softeners, lozenges and special creams that add up and can be expensive.

In terms of raising awareness the best step for me is to continue to do the research, find the facts and bust the myths. When I do I'll keep sharing them. I want to continue to keep seeing all your beautiful, freshly-scrubbed faces on my timeline, but before posting perhaps add one fact about breast cancer that you want to share with others. That can go a long way to raising the awareness that needs to be raised. We don't need to start from scratch or create a different campaign or coloured ribbon. We need to build on what's been successful but start being more strategic and directing funds and awareness in the right direction. It's time to raise the pink bar.

Until next time.....carry on.


  1. Thank you for these important facts.....I have often wondered with all the money that goes to Cancer research why is it still the cause of so many deaths. I love your tips on keeping it local and the gas cards and pharmacy cards are excellent ideas.....thanks again Cindy for keeping us informed and helping us to make better choices when it comes to donating. :-)

    1. Thanks, Lori....I'm glad you are enjoying the blog!

  2. The facts cannot be told too many times. Too often the commercialism of breast cancer takes precedence over the reality of it. I too will continue to spread the truth, bust the myths and educate the public whenever I can. I have decided that each time I see a selfie in support of bc awareness, I will post an educational article, blog or fact regarding bc.

    1. That's a great idea, are a great advocate and I admire all you are doing. Hope you are well!