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This Is Me, Huddled in a Cave, For the Month of October…

The drop kick to the head is completely unexpected. It’s a beautiful and sunny October 2, and I unsuspectingly grab my daily newspaper. Boom!!

The headline screams: “October Is Breast Cancer Awareness Month: What to Know –and Buy—to Join in the Fight.” Inside is a one-page spread detailing how to support breast cancer by buying lipsticks, cookies, alcohol, and clothing, to name a few.  I am totally sneak attacked by this; I blissfully forgot that today was the start of October and my guard is down.  Now I’m ticked off. I spend the next two hours at work furiously concocting an adequate (but not too insane) FB post, complete with a picture of the offensive top fold of the newspaper.

My post:

So, here is the problem with PinkTober. You want to eradicate breast cancer? Don’t buy ANY products. Buying alcohol, sweets, make-up (the first two are scientifically proven to contribute to cancer and the third very likely) or anything else that vendors are self-servingly slapping a pink label on, won’t do it. Do your homework. Find an organization that puts most of its money into research instead of “awareness.” Is there anyone in this country who isn’t aware of breast cancer at this point? We need prevention and a CURE. Nothing else will suffice. So please, think before you pink! There are a lot of great organizations that aren’t hawking wares and will put your generous contribution exactly where it will help the most.

Having already wasted two hours at work, I waste the next hour and a half hitting the refresh button on my FB page to see who has commented or liked my post. I’m not disappointed, and I spend the rest of the day feeling outraged and self-righteous.

Welcome to Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2017!

I used to love October. Fall is glorious in the northeast. The air is crisp, the colors vibrant, and the smell of fall is unmistakable. But now, as a breast cancer survivor, the color pink has usurped the sunlit gold leaves and burnt orange pumpkins of October.

Before cancer, the PinkSplosion was a small background buzz, but since cancer, it has morphed into an omnipresent roar-in-the-face for 31 days straight.  The already crazy 24-hour news cycle turns into a fuchsia feeding frenzy and I am ambushed by the television, the internet, bus billboards, and advertisements on city streets.  I hear it on the radio and podcasts. I even hear it over a grocery store PA system preaching breast cancer prevention by eating fruits and vegetables; meanwhile, the same store has a garish pink table display of frosted cakes, cupcakes, cookies and most egregiously, pies.  A car dealership inexplicably hawks cars for breast cancer.  Football teams slap pink ribbons on their jerseys. Bars advertise offensive events such as “Boobie Bingo” and “Boob-b-que.” Frankly, it’s hard to enter any type of store without some pink-ribboned item smacking me in the face.

The “Awareness” moniker sets my teeth on edge.

I ALREADY think about cancer all the time.  It’s the fear of recurrence that flares up at any unexplained pain in my back. Or my shoulder. Or my neck. Or my head. Oh heck, anywhere, really. It’s my daily dose of tamoxifen, complete with ever-present side effects. It’s the anger and sadness and yep, more fear, when yet another survivor friend’s cancer metastasizes.  It’s the PTSD symptoms that easily resurface.  I ALREADY think about cancer far too much, so I resent having it thrown in my face for an entire month. This is my most base, most visceral, knee-jerk reaction to breast cancer awareness month. I don’t expect everyone to feel the same way or agree with it.  I’ve heard that some women are really “into” Breast Cancer Awareness month.  I just personally don’t know any of them.

Near universally, the cancer survivors and thrivers that I know are at best ambivalent about PinkTober and at worst, pretty infuriated by it.

Big reveal –I’m infuriated by it.

I view it as Pinkwashing with frothy pink tutus and lace, concealing and forgetting women who struggle with metastatic cancer and worse, women who die from it. I want a Cure Campaign, not an awareness campaign. I want a full-on Prevention campaign, not the hawking of products that actually cause cancer.  I’m infuriated by the euphemisms:   Save the boobies! Save the tatas! Take your bra off day to support breast cancer!

I don’t know many women whose “boobies” were saved. Even a lumpectomy can be very disfiguring. And the sexualization of cancer is downright gross…it’s not about BOOBS, it’s about cancer. But by far, the worst part of PinkTober is the corporatization of breast cancer. It should be an anathema, but it isn’t. Slap a pink ribbon on an item, donate 5% to breast cancer something-or-other and boom, instant marketing technique.  Where does this money even go? Each year, there is a hands-down, most truly terrible tie-in, but nothing (so far) beats 2014’s Worst PinkTaste award ever: The Susan B. Komen Foundation partnered with Baker Hughes, one of the world’s largest oilfield service companies. For “awareness,” BH manufactured pink drill bits.  I was not the only one who prayed this was an Onion story.

When I first starting writing about PinkTober in 2014, I could sense a shift, a backlash from some in the breast cancer community. And now, in 2017, that shift, that buzzing of malcontent, is as loud and angry as a hornet’s nest. This righteous rage is almost equal to the roar of Awareness with its pink t-shirts and pink key chains.  I see hope, but a different kind of hope than the pink frosting-smeared HOPE on that pizza-sized cookie.  Maybe I’m filtering my Pinktake, but the majority of what I now read in the media from survivors and thrivers is from women and men who are not happy with the co-opting of their disease for corporate profit. Their words are honest, raw, indignant, determined, and pointed. Daily, I discover new writing that pierces me deeply with anger, sadness, joy, love, fear, determination, and perseverance.

It’s powerful to read these brave stories, but even more than that I feel…. Excitement. I feel exhilarated. THIS is what Breast Cancer Awareness should be: Awareness of those who actually suffer from breast cancer at every stage of the disease, and especially metastatic disease, the only breast cancer that kills. I’m not naïve enough to think that the outrage of actual breast cancer survivors and thrivers will stop the PinkTober juggernaut.  But the conversation is morphing, shifting, and expanding.  And that is worth raising awareness about.

Author’s Note: This originally ran in October 2014 on 4Wholeness.com, but the post is still so relevant, I have updated it for 2017. Keep up the backlash and maybe this will no longer be relevant at all in a few years!

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  • Jennifer Jaye is an editor and adventure-seeker living in NYC. She was diagnosed with stage 2B, ER/PR+ breast cancer in 2011 and is currently NED. She is a volunteer state leader for Young Survival Coalition and is known to occasionally "drop trou" to model lingerie created for women who have had breast surgeries (AnaOno and Red Fern to name two). She is a sometimes writer and always athlete who loves to surf and ice climb.

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