Judith Rosenbaum explains why “breast cancer awareness” is simply not enough.
Though I’ve never had breast cancer, I think it’s fair to say the disease has shaped my life. My mother was diagnosed at age 32, when I was 5 years old; she battled the disease for 33 years before dying of her sixth recurrence last December. Four years ago, I learned that I carry the BRCA genetic mutation, and I chose to have two prophylactic surgeries—bilateral mastectomy and the removal of my ovaries and fallopian tubes—taking drastic action in order to reduce my risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
So one might think I’d spend the month of October festooned with pink ribbons, buying up pink products, marching through the streets in a “Save the Ta-Tas” t-shirt, to raise awareness of this disease that has haunted me for nearly 35 years. But the truth is: I’m emphatically pink-resistant.
“Awareness” is…well, it’s certainly better than ignorance. But it’s so abstract. What kind of awareness does this month really spark? Awareness that women get sick and sometimes lose their breasts? Awareness of breast cancer’s environmental causes? Awareness of the political, racial, and economic inequities that are part of this disease and its treatment? Awareness of the fact that some of the biggest marketers of pink products benefit financially from breast cancer and/or pollute the environment with carcinogenic toxins?
Some people argue that the few cents that might go to breast cancer research when you purchase a pink product are better than nothing. But I wonder how to measure the cost of this kind of corporate-driven and consumer-oriented pinkwashing. If we think we’re helping the cause by “shopping for the cure,” does that distract our attention from other political actions we could be taking?
And as someone who grew up with a one-breasted mother and voluntarily gave up my own “ta-tas” to avoid breast cancer, I’m put off by the objectifying humor of much of current breast cancer advocacy. I’m all for playfulness, and I know I’ll be labeled a humorless feminist for saying this, but is it really worth capitalizing on the sexual objectification of women to attract support for this disease? Why reduce a woman to her breasts, especially when she might be about to lose them?
I love Breast Cancer Action’s “Think Before You Pink” campaign because it reminds us to take responsibility—to think for ourselves—rather than promoting some amorphous “awareness,” the source of which and the process by which we arrive at it unclear and undefined.
Admittedly, I’m not the audience for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I don’t need an official month to raise my awareness. I’m aware every day. And I don’t wish that kind of awareness on anyone. But I know that I want something more than awareness. I was initially puzzled when I saw the two wives of presidential candidates in nearly matching hot pink suits at the second debate—How could they not avoid such a social faux pas as wearing the same shade of pink! I wondered, and then realized, of course, this was the ceremonial display of “breast cancer awareness.” But is that what breast cancer politics amounts to? A pink suit on a First Lady? Does the fashion statement ever lead to a policy statement? Does a pink suit really communicate painful realities like “public health crisis” or “40,000 women die each year”?
I hope that some day soon we can treat this disease without disfiguring and amputating women’s breasts, without taking their hair or their fertility. I hope my children will consider it barbaric, inconceivable, and positively medieval that prevention, in my day, meant cutting off healthy body parts. But one of the most important breast cancer lessons I learned from my mother is that facing this disease is about valuing life, not breasts. It’s about learning to be whole, even with scars; it’s about bringing your whole self to the fight against breast cancer, mingling grief, sickness, and anger with joy, hope, and more than a little moxie. Awareness isn’t enough. We need life-affirming, life-sustaining, loud and insistent action.
Judith Rosenbaum is a feminist historian, educator, and writer, and director of public history at the Jewish Women’s Archive. She is a founder and blogger at Jewesses with Attitude and is currently working on an anthology that explores contemporary redefinitions of the “Jewish mother.” She lives in Boston with her husband and their hilarious and high-spirited five-year-old twins. You can find her on Twitter at @jahr.