What’s So Scary About Breast Cancer?

Breast cancer is scary. The number one predictor for having breast cancer known thus far is just being a woman. Though this may sound obvious to some, the fact that we do not know enough about this disease to be able to find any other conclusive causing factors is strange, given the amount of time in which it has been in the public focus and the billions of dollars of research money that has been donated in that time. One of the reasons that we don’t know much about the disease is because the money we spend when we purchase pink products goes to research for a cure, and not towards research to determine the cause. Finding a cure is important, as it allows us to be hopeful. But it cannot be our only focus.

This swim cap will help us, right?
This swim cap will help us, right?

Instead of focusing in equal parts on understanding the cause and the cure, we are inundated with pink bike helmets, hammers, teddy bears, and spatulas that promise donations for a cure. So far, this has been unsuccessful. In the meantime, companies looking for a competitive edge can slap a pink ribbon on something and watch it fly off the shelves as they count on the philanthropic pockets of their consumers to open for the cause. Why is breast cancer the cause you see marketed the most? It’s a safe disease to market as it is perhaps the only non-stigmatized disease that has the potential to affect half of the population. In fact, not only women get breast cancer. Though less frequently, men are also disagnosed with this disease, though they are often ashamed as it is seen as a “women’s disease.” Because it is so well known and so poorly understood, breast cancer is the sweet spot for marketing as research will always need funding.

So why don’t we know much about breast cancer? Well, what we do know isn’t pretty. One can read about breast cancer restoration in Scottsdale, guidelines for those recovered – and that information is verified and well presented. At the same time, though no major risk factors have been identified for women to watch out for, we know that we ingest and come into contact with many products that are carcinogenic, meaning that they cause cancer. In fact, many of the companies who sponsor research for the cure continue to sell pink products to us even though they are known to be carcinogenic. Though they are pocketing off of our collective desire to find a cure for this disease, these companies have no incentive to stop selling their carcinogenic products. As long as they continue to urge us to buy cancer-causing products that fund research for a cure, no one is focusing on their contribution to the cause of our cancer. We are effectively placated and literally buying into their scam.

What about 'save the women dying from this disease'?
What about ‘save the women dying from this disease’? Not as catchy?

And what about all of those pink products? Why is that pink ribbon the face of breast cancer? Putting this pretty face as the mask of a disease that is devastating to those it affects doesn’t make us think about how scary breast cancer actually is. Instead, we think of the empowering walks and runs in which we participate that evoke so much hope in us.  Though mobilizing collectively like this is important, without coupling our search for a cure with a drive to find the cause, we are allowing these corporations profiting off of breast cancer to define our movement to cure it. Products marketed to promote breast cancer awareness are usually either infantilizing women by selling childish things to represent a disease that impacts grown women, or objectifying women’s bodies through marketing focused solely on women’s breasts, even though many with the disease have to have mastectomies. When considering what the disease really looks like for those who have it, who is the pink campaign about boobs really supposed to represent?

But should it be all about the boobs?
But should it be all about the boobs?

Even the words that we use when discussing breast cancer point to the problematic way that we think of the disease. We frequently talk about breast cancer being a “battle,” calling those who live through it “survivors.” Though it is important for those who have lived through breast cancer to have empowering language to describe what they have gone through, it is equally important to consider the implications of that language.

Positing breast cancer as the enemy conveniently allows us to focus all of our anger on the disease. We are angry because we don’t know why this is happening to so many women. We are angry because the only treatments available to us are the “slash, burn, and kill” methods that leave our bodies sick and scarred. We are angry that we are told that early detection is our best hope, when in reality many types of breast cancer cannot be treated even when they are detected early. We are angry because the money for research that we have been funding has yielded little results in the decades since we have begun walking and running and buying for a cure. And we have been handed rhetoric that encourages us to direct our anger at the disease, instead of at the culture that tell us that if we only buy enough pink teddy bears, our own diligence should be enough to save us until we have bought a cure that no private or medical company seems to have financial incentive to find; rhetoric that implies that the women who have been diagnosed with untreatable breast cancer aren’t “survivors,” aren’t “warriors,” didn’t fight hard enough against the most famous disease that we inexplicably seem to still not understand. We are angry, but maybe not at the right people.

6 thoughts on “What’s So Scary About Breast Cancer?

  1. I watched a documentary once about a breast-cancer survivor who was very put-off by the “Save the Boobs” campaign. She choose not to have reconstructive surgery following a double masectomy – she and her partner both still enjoyed her body very much and had a great sex life. They were grateful that she was alive – fuck the boobs! I will try to find the name of it for you, but it is interesting to think about how society assumes a survivor will automatically get reconstructive surgery. I also liked how you made consumerism part of the discussion – where are all of our pennies going? With the multi-billion dollar industry that cancer is, would it ever be in “big-business” hospitals best interest to find a cure??


    1. That sounds like an interesting documentary- let me know if you remember the title! I am also sceptical about the financial motivation to find a cure, which is worrysome given that it appears to be where we’ve put all of our metaphorical eggs. I’m sure there are some companies and employees who really do want to find one, though, so hopefully someday they will.


  2. Such a powerful post! Being that my mom had very serious breast cancer when I was in 7th grade, I feel like I could really relate to this post. Not that I do not support finding a cure, because if it were not for that, I am not sure if my mom would still be here today. (6 years clean!) But it has been such a prevalence in our lives today that it is time to stop letting it expand as a disease, we need to put and end to it as whole.


    1. Thank you for sharing, and I’m glad to hear that your mom has lived through that experience! I definitely think that we should have an emphasis on finding a cure, but I’m wary of the consumerist nature of breast cancer awareness today, and I think we’re taking an incomplete look at the disease by encouraging individuals to be responsible for preventing it without putting more emphasis for determining and reducing the causes of breast cancer in addition to seeking a cure.


  3. This post really speaks to me. I am admittedly cynical about lots of marketing campaigns — but the breast cancer campaigns really hit a nerve. I feel that the focus on “saving the boobs” may do more harm than good. I also believe that the discourses of fighting, survivor-hood, and compulsory positivity are not necessarily good for all those with breast cancer or their families.
    For those interested in this I recommend the book “Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America” by Barbara Ehrenreich – it’s an interesting read.


    1. Thank you for the recommendation! That sounds like an interesting book, and a topic that could cover multiple issues.


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