A Month of Pink Is Not Enough to Prevent Breast Cancer Deaths

I wish “Pinktober” was more about saving the people who will die from breast cancer and less about pink ribbons and sexualizing the disease.

My two rules for October:

  1. Don’t wear/buy/sell anything that sexualizes breast cancer.
  2. Know where your money is going and how much of it.

October (aka Pinktober) is here, but for me, living for nearly eight years with metastatic stage 4 breast cancer, it isn’t a month of beating cancer, fighting like a girl, or saving the ta-tas.

The focus on those with the localized breast cancer, who have a five-year survival rate of 99% is the foundation for campaigns that use words like prevention and awareness. This means that the risk of metastatic recurrence, an all-to-real event for 20-30% of those deemed “cured,” is left out, conspicuously absent. It means that the people who are most likely to die of breast cancer — or who are, frankly, dying of breast cancer — are pushed aside for frantic publicity and fundraising.

So, I follow my two easy-to-remember rules during the onslaught of events, giveaways and pink-ribbon-bedecked products.

I’ve been asked by friends and others why I don’t wear all-the-pink in October. I give them my factual reasons: funding for stage 4 breast cancer is markedly less than that for early-stage breast cancer (once estimated by the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance at 7% of all breast cancer research dollars, a percentage that is shocking in its inequity), despite a high recurrence rate and terminal prognosis; sexualization of breast cancer; and highjacking of people’s good intentions and cash.

READ MORE: Breast Cancer Survivor Sees Red Over Pink

But the emotional reason, for me, is that Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a hard hit to my heart every time I see a pink ribbon. Instead of that universally recognized symbol, I see the lives and deaths of many people I’ve learned from and loved; many accomplished amazing things during their time with breast cancer, and all of them should have mattered to the many corporations, individuals and nonprofits that choose year after year to hide breast cancer’s devastating toll behind cheerful pink slogans.

This past year or so was especially hard, which makes sense given that the longer you live with stage 4 cancer, the more likely you are to interact with similarly diagnosed people, some of whom will join the forecasted 43,780 metastatic breast cancer 2022 deaths in the United States.

Most recently, Lisa Laudico, a friend and founder of the podcast Our MBC Life (where I’m a co-host since last season) died after living with metastatic breast cancer for five years. Lisa also brought to life the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance’s Here All Year, which was the brainchild of another friend, Katherine O’Brien. Katherine died in June 2021, after years of giving so much of herself to increasing awareness of the disease that killed her own mother and would be the eventual cause of her own death.

Kristie, whose beautiful writing has disappeared from the internet, died at the start of December in 2021; Lori, with whom I was texting as she waited in an emergency room, died at the start of October 2021 itself. If she had been at my cancer center, the bitter irony of entering a pink-bedecked space would be unavoidable. I hope that pink ribbons and cheerful messages of survival were not among the last things she saw.

Dorothy, who was my roommate at Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s Hear My Voice advocacy training died in April 2022. A poet and beautiful, intensely smart woman who anyone would be grateful to call a friend. Ilene, Sandra, Judy, Suzanne, Angela, Stephanie and Liz, another writer who aptly named her blog “Breast Cancer Conscript.” All the way back to Valerie Roybal, who died in November 2018 amid a powerful art project about living with metastatic breast cancer.

Nearly 44,000 women and men dead this year, in the United States alone. I knew only a handful, really, and October makes my heart break with its silly messages that deny the pain of all these lives lost. So, I’m picky about who and what gets my attention and my money. It’s just not enough to don a pink ribbon and talk about thriving and overcoming if you want to make breast cancer awareness month actually matter.


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