What do you think about campaigns promoting “awareness” of breast and ovarian cancer?

Helpline question of the month

It's not just foliage that bursts into color in the fall. Just about every consumer product suddenly sprouts a pastel "awareness" ribbon. First comes TEALtember, National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. And then comes PINKtober, National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

I remember the moment PINKtober entered my consciousness. How can I forget—it was 10 years ago, and I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. I was flying to Florida to visit my mother-in-law because my treatment—which included surgery, chemotherapy, Herceptin, and radiation—would prevent me from seeing her again for quite a while. Midway through the flight, attendants began selling pink cocktails with pink umbrellas. When we landed, my mother-in-law's best friend greeted me with a pink-bowed teddy bear. At the nursing home, the staff wore pink twists of ribbon. Back then, I was comforted by the concern I saw all around me.

I also remember the camaraderie of a breast-cancer walk I took a year later with thousands of other survivors—many with sparse hair like mine. Not only did the walk raise money and spread information about the disease; it also buoyed me with a sense of sisterhood.

Over time, however, I became more cynical of cancer-awareness campaigns, as the term "pinkwashing" entered my vocabulary. Pinkwashing is when, for example, a company that makes carcinogenic products embellishes them with pink ribbons to generate goodwill and sales. Nonprofits often accept donations from such companies. Now those pink twists of ribbons look to me like broken infinity symbols, like lives interrupted—not a reassuring thought.

Mulling over my own mixed feelings, I polled SHARE's volunteers to see how they feel about "awareness" months. Here's what they have to say:

Echoing my own thoughts, Barbara, who counsels breast-cancer survivors, notes, "More transparency should be required of participating companies to ensure that their products and their manufacture don't poison us with carcinogens."

Koryn, a professional photographer who volunteers on the breast-cancer helpline, was initially rah-rah about awareness campaigns. But then she saw the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc., about the exploitation of the pink emblems. "It sickened me to think about people believing they were helping raise funds for a cure but actually they've filled the bank accounts of corporate America in the name of breast cancer." Her disillusionment inspired her to found the Cherish Project, which offers free photography services to stage 4 cancer patients and their families. "I can't give them a cure," she says, "but I can do this much to help fill the void for their loved ones."

Many SHARE volunteers have largely positive feelings about cancer-related events. Lisa, a breast-cancer helpline volunteer, says, "I like awareness promotions but wish more education would accompany some of them." Meryl, a volunteer who's had breast cancer twice, feels that despite the hype, the campaigns "make women more aware of the possibility that they may develop cancer and remind them to be sure to get checkups regularly—which certainly saves lives."

Two SHARE volunteers who've had rarer forms of cancer welcome the attention shed on their disease. Mark, who counsels men with breast cancer, has participated in 233 Race for the Cure events and says his fellow participants and their supporters "share optimism, camaraderie, defiance, and group joy." He believes the races he's participated in have spread knowledge about male breast cancer and lymphedema. "But if they're not your cup of tea, no problem," he says. "You're free to choose any beverage you like."

Gwen, who facilitates an ovarian-cancer support group, notes that Tealtember events spread camaraderie among women dealing with a disease that can be lonely and isolating. "It can be extremely uplifting to see that sea of teal," she says. And the information included in press coverage of the various walks and runs has had a huge impact. "As someone who has manned many a health-fair booth, I can say that we have made significant progress. It used to be that when I asked women if they knew the symptoms of ovarian cancer, I would get blank stares. Now a much higher percentage can name some of them. I'm also hearing that they understand that their annual physical isn't checking for ovarian cancer and that there is no screening test." Nonetheless, Gwen, says, "I would rather have my money go directly to a cause than filtered through some corporate philanthropic department."

Some survivors treasure the memory of the intimacy they experienced at earlier events but now feel alienated by the sense that their disease has become a marketing tool. Agnes, who facilitates a breast-cancer support group at SHARE, remembers her first breast-cancer walk, 20 years ago: "We met on Riverside Drive, walked along it, then tried to go on Broadway, but the police stopped us because there was a problem with the permit. An altogether amateurish effort, but what a feeling! How moving it was to see people carrying signs with their loved ones' pictures!" Over the years, however, she says she has witnessed a gradual commercialization, with sales of T-shirts and baseball caps and other cheap mementos. "The walks have become media events with music, speeches, orchestrated cheering, and publicity for corporate sponsors. I'm happy that breast cancer has stopped being a dark secret and that awareness about it has saved lives. It's wonderful that money is being contributed to helping those affected and finding a cure for this disease. But these impersonal walks do not appeal to me."

As for me, I no longer participate in any of the major walks or runs. These days I give money to organizations whose services I have used personally, including SHARE. For me, that's the best way to make sure that my money supports activities I value.