9-Step Plan for Breast Cancer Awareness Month


Sometimes that product or campaign does good, but sometimes it doesn't. Here's how to sort through the pink marketing

When I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer 44 months ago — and I use months here because that's how my prognosis is actually measured, at 36-month average life expectancy upon diagnosis – much of my life changed.

You'd expect some of them: Mental health took a dive, chemotherapy took my hair, my docs, who saw suspicious signs on a CT scan, took my ovaries. It was a horrible and fast-moving, unrelenting dive into a new life.

Nearly all aspects of my life have been impacted by my cancer diagnosis. Not every impact is large. Some would even be considered trivial at first glance. For instance, every year as October gets underway, I have to reconcile my long-time love of the color pink with the marketing surrounding it during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

How can I still love pink?

I am grateful for the money that has been raised by reputable organizations. I am grateful for the businesses and groups that use October to raise not just money but encourage action and progress. I'm grateful for the countless advocates who speak out every October about shortcomings and needs in research and the serious and continuing failures in breast cancer care for many. I have to acknowledge that the enthusiasm generated by a pink ribbon is used by worthy groups during Breast Cancer Awareness Month to turn money into real, sustainable and life-changing action.

Of course, the years of awareness campaigns have also served to stifle knowledge about metastatic breast cancer, which has killed 113 US women and men a day for at least the past twenty years. There are also those who abuse the pink hype. Telling the difference isn't always easy. Here's my 9-step buy-or-don't-buy plan:

Step 1: Remember that we cannot shop our way out of breast cancer. The biggest piece of the research-money pie is from the government (NIH, NCI, DOD, FDA) and, in my opinion, the most important step is to be vocal with your representatives about increased funding and how this crucial money is being spent.

Step 2: If it uses offensive, sexualizing or trivializing words or images, it is not an option.

Step 3: Read the fine print. I admit to buying a "pink" volleyball t-shirt before I understood the money raised was going to a group that I knew wasn't spending it wisely. It was an impulse purchase that made me feel so guilty that the shirt was relegated to cleaning-rag status. If a product or store is advertising pink, I make a point of knowing the specifics of the fundraising, including recipient, percentage of purchase and dollar limitations.

Step 4: If I can't figure out where the money from a fundraiser is going (or how much) by reading the packaging or going to the business website, I either don't participate or I contact the store, group, etc. and ask. If they don't respond within a couple of days, I don't participate.

Step 5: Once I know where the money is going, I head to Charity Navigator, which provides specific information about many charitable organizations. I look at how a group spends their money, how is the governance of the organization set up and its star ranking.

Step 6: If Charity Navigator is no help, as is typically the case with local groups, I reach out on social media to see what others may know or how they may have benefited.

Step 7: I go the organization's website to look for transparency there. If they proclaim that x amount is spent on research grants, I want to see those grant titles, focus, dollar amounts and recipients. If they say their money goes to support cancer patients, I want to see exactly how — gift cards, transportation, etc.

Step 8: I set my own guidelines. Aside from metastatic disease and male breast cancer, I don't want to fund awareness initiatives. I don't oppose research into prevention, but I actively support research for metastatic breast cancer knowledge and treatments (and metastasis in general, as well as lung cancer). I also don't hesitate to support groups that I know serve a vital function for patient support, either locally or nationally. If I agree with what they fund, and they spend their money wisely, without exorbitant administrative costs for example, I support their efforts.

Step 9: I ask myself if I really need that pink item. I tend to give money directly to organizations I value, indicating where I want my donation to go — research, patient support, etc. It's also possible to check with your local cancer center to see if it has a foundation you'd feel comfortable supporting.

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