The true meaning of awareness

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Jane McManus wonders if some breast cancer awareness campaigns have gone too far.

There was a time when women died of breast cancer because they were too embarrassed to go to the doctor.

It wasn't really that long ago. In 1950, The New York Times declined an ad for a breast cancer support group because of the words "breast" and "cancer." Women who were diagnosed, along with their allies, worked hard to remove the stigma that was associated with the disease.

And, thankfully, the pendulum finally swung.

This past May, actress Angelina Jolie wrote an op-ed in the same New York Times about her decision to have a preventive mastectomy out of fear of dying from breast cancer. It was honest and vulnerable, detailing her mother's death from the disease and her own inheritance of the BRCA1 gene, which can increase the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers.

Now it seems positively Victorian to think you would hide a breast cancer diagnosis to avoid shame. That is a tribute to the movement that includes Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which concludes Thursday, and its pink commemorative ribbons and pink-colored sports equipment worn by male and female athletes alike.

Progress, and then some, right?

But what happens when the pendulum swings in a direction it never should?

A friend of mine, who has no love for breast cancer, recently expressed frustration when she saw a Facebook post with a photo of a black T-shirt that read, "Breast Man." The T-shirt is hardly the first product trading on the appeal of breasts during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The small, dark-gray print on the shirt showed some obligatory slogan of support. There's also "Save Second Base" and "I Stare Because I Care." The best yet: motorboating for breast cancer awareness (yes, that actually happened), from the guys who bring you adult Halloween costumes. All cleavage, all the time.

The message: Save your breasts so they can continue to be ogled for years to come, the kind of campaign even a misogynist could get behind.

But the disconcerting result is that the most important goal of awareness -- saving lives -- is lost. And sexualizing breasts trivializes the reality of cancer for many women, including myself. (Full disclosure: I dutifully had my annual mammogram and sonogram this month at a buzzing radiology practice. The tech told me October is always busy. Later, after all the unpleasant squeezing, I was immensely relieved when I got the all clear.) But the process can be more serious, including surgery, radiation, uncertain futures, wondering whether you will see your children graduate.

That message, and reality, gets a little lost when the conversation devolves into boob jokes.

Women's lives are about so much more.

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