In the United States, it’s as quintessential to October as playoff baseball and the spread of the pumpkin-flavored plague. Pink, the color of breast cancer, floods public spaces in the official month of breast cancer awareness. The magnitude of our societal response to this disease is proportionate to the danger. According to the American Cancer Society’s most recent report, an estimated 232,340 cases of new breast cancer were expected in 2013, in addition to 64,640 preexisting cases. In the same year, almost 40,000 women were expected to die from breast cancer. The drive for a cure is necessary. But is it becoming insidiously harmful to the very people it’s trying to save?
Breasts are practically an obsession in our culture. The reasons are plain: sex sells. However, at a point in time when feminist issues are supposedly a societal priority, the mantra that “sex sells” is an utterly inadequate excuse for trivializing women’s health, objectifying the female body, and sexualizing a disease. We ought to demand better avenues of fundraising for breast cancer organizations that don’t cheapen the experience of patients and burden them with unrealistic physical and emotional expectations.
On the liberal blog Everyday Feminism, Sian Ferguson writes persuasively about the pernicious effect of sexual slogans in the fight against breast cancer. T-shirts with phrases like “Save the tat as!,” “I love boobies!,” “Save Second Base,” “Honk if you love tatas” and “Grab a feel” are undoubtedly eye-catching and fun to most people. However, these slogans are ultimately harmful because they make cancer research about saving breasts, not saving people’s lives. They characterize cancer as a devastating disease not because it kills women and weakens communities, but because it deprives society, specifically the male gaze, of an attractive body part. This is completely contrary to the actual measures that are taken to combat cancer. Mastectomies, for example, do not save tatas. They destroy nipples, breasts, connective tissue, lymph tissue, and muscle. They save lives, which is far more important. Why not run a series of ads featuring mastectomy survivors? Why do most images disseminated about breast cancer depict women in their twenties when the average patient is 60 or older? The images that most accurately reflect the experience of breast cancer are being stifled in favor of sexualized images that conform to our society’s view of women. It’s time we realized that this isn’t about saving breasts. It’s about saving people.
The visuals of breast cancer awareness are not the only problematic aspect of otherwise great intentions. The vast majority of breast cancer research advertising is “feel-good”. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; we want to give breast cancer patients an optimistic, encouraging support system during a time when they may be feeling depressed, scared, and fatigued. However, there can be too much of a good thing. The homogenous portrayal of the emotional experiences associated with breast cancer fails to reflect the reality of a cancer patient’s experience and erases their voice if it doesn’t align with a positive message. Lung cancer ads don’t show people in suggestive, cheerful, or humorous poses. They show people wheezing, coughing, and wasting away. Why is breast cancer different? Support includes acknowledging and validating women who do not feel happy, optimistic, sexy, or funny during treatment.
We need to end the harmful assumption in society that women are supposed to suffer in a way that’s convenient or palatable to everyone else. They should not be expected to maintain themselves as sex objects or even as the calmly benign nurturers that society expects. They should be allowed to be whatever they are and feel however they feel when they are fighting for their lives.
Diverse stories of the physicality and emotional experiences associated with breast cancer do exist. Survivor Kathi Kolb writes about the realistic range of emotions experienced as a result of breast cancer on her popular blog The Accidental Amazon. Nancy Stordahl writes about the sexualized images of breast cancer for The Huffington Post and on her blog Nancy’s Point. There are as many types of breast cancer stories as there are types of women; it’s a shame society chooses to only broadcast one.