October is the only month during which I like the color pink. That’s because for the past ten days and for the next 20, the girlish hue reminds me of more than Barbie dolls, glitter and an awful cocktail dress I wore to the 8th grade social.
Instead, it reminds me of the people I know, or the people I would have known, who have been affected by breast cancer.
I, like so many others, jump on the breast cancer awareness train in October.
Unfortunately, I, like so many others, jump off the train come November 1. When pink stops appearing in store windows, on social media feeds and within the pages of newspapers, most of the world stops paying attention. And honestly, I usually do too.
We are slacktivists (slacker activists, for those unfamiliar with the term). It doesn’t take much effort to sport a pink ribbon, like a Facebook page or get your daily three-mile workout in via Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure. Giving back is in style, and Breast Cancer Awareness Month makes being trendy easy.
But we cannot just blame ourselves for the intermittent advocacy. The public relations effort around breast cancer awareness has done quite the opposite of what cause marketing is intended to do. Instead of supporting a cure, the October-only pink-wearers are supporting a brand.
As Samantha Kin, associate professor of kinesiology and health at Queen’s University in Ontario and author of “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” recently stated, such campaigns are “divorced from any critique of health care policy or the politics of funding biomedical research. They reinforce a single-issue competitive model of fund-raising. And they whitewash illness: we’re made ‘aware’ of a disease yet totally removed from the challenging and often devastating realities of its sufferers.”
According to the National Cancer Institute , 234,580 men and women have been diagnosed with breast cancer and 40,030 Americans have died as a result of the disease in 2013. Only prostate cancer had a higher number of new cases, and only colon and lung cancer caused more deaths.
The cause is clearly worthy, but is all the hype accomplishing enough?
A quick Google search leads me to believe the answer is no.
From countless articles about breast cancer charity scams to condemnations of companies like KFC and Skyy Vodka that “go pink” even though their products could actually increase a person’s risk of developing the disease, the news beat is not always what public relations professionals likely intend it to be in October.
When Breast Cancer Action launched the Think Before You Pink project in 2002 to shed light on the need for transparency and accountability by companies taking part in breast cancer fundraising, someone at a communications agency surely crinkled their brow and spewed a series of profanities before quickly getting on the phone.
But the problem in 2002 is still a problem now, and it needs to be fixed.
The strategy must change. The standards for becoming a corporate sponsor must be raised. The messaging must be stronger. And we all must be forced to see beyond the brand and into the lives of those affected by the disease.
On October 1 of this year, I woke up on the right side of the bed. On my daily trip to Caribou, I was asked whether I wanted to donate a bag of Amy’s Blend to support breast cancer awareness.
Without asking who Amy was, how much the bag would cost, or where my money would go, I said yes. I made my purchase and walked out the door.
If the strategy changes, my encounter and the “October” experience of millions would go differently. Along with my purchase, I would have received a small card with information about what my funds will help do, who Amy is, and where I can go to learn more about breast cancer and further contribute to the cause.
If the strategy changes, more people would know key facts such as more than 75 percent of women with breast cancer have no family history of the disease.
If the strategy changes, the month will focus more heavily on education, prevention and research, and less on corporate sponsors getting money and citizens like me feeling good with one easy click, swipe or pinned ribbon.
There is good work being done during October and throughout the year to combat breast cancer (in 2011, Susan G. Komen spent $63 million of its donations on research to help eradicate the disease).
But more work must happen to shift the dialogue and alter the focus.
And the ball is in PR professionals’ court to do it.
This April, the American Public Health Association’s National Public Health Week had a theme that resonates – “Public Health is ROI: Save Lives, Save Money.”
If we do things right, maybe the National Breast Cancer Coalition will reach its goal of ending breast cancer by 2020.
And if I’m lucky, maybe wearing pink will never be the defining gesture of my support for finding a cure.