Pinkwashing Breast Cancer

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

By Abigail Johnston

I began my experience with breast cancer in March of 2017 and experienced the pink soaked month of October a few months after we discovered that I’d been Stage IV or Metastatic from the beginning. In October of 2017, I was just weaning myself off of a cane after walking with a walker for some weeks after the surgery that placed titanium rods inside my femurs. It was an honestly a hellish few months and I’d not yet come to terms with having to close my business and trade the life of a busy business owner for the life of a forever patient. I was feeling the loss of so much, a literal loss of identity and I was drowning.

I struggled, a lot, with the concept of awareness and the celebrations of survivors who were in the position that I wanted to be in – looking forward to getting back to their life they had before cancer. A few short months prior, that’s where we thought I would be and yet when I was told in June of 2017 that cancer would indeed end my life, all of those expectations were blown out of the water. I’m not sure I can articulate how hard it was to have been told I had cancer, adjusted and assimilated as best I could what would happen, only to be told a few months later that I was terminal.

The first time I saw the ribbons splashed all over a retail store that October of 2017, it was the post office and I was still bald or mostly bald from chemo. When I saw the cheerful banner and how the clerks attempted to sell a page of ribbon stamps to each person in front of me, I desperately wanted to leave. But I was mailing something for the closure of the business, something to do with one of the accounts I had negotiated closing early because we’d had to cease operations and I needed it to be postmarked that day, so I gritted my teeth and kept my spot in line.

As I made my way to the front of the line, dreading how each person eyed my head, some with clear pity that made me want to punch them, some with weird speculation that also made me want to punch them, and some dismissively …. Yep, wanted to punch them too.

I was in quite a mood to eviscerate someone when I got up to the clerk to mail my package. I could see the indecision on her face as she rang up my order, eyeing my head and asking careful questions about what I was mailing and why, and when we got towards the end, she said something about the breast cancer beribboned stamps. Probably whatever was on their script, with a gesture towards my head. It was clear I was a cancer patient to her and she made the question a bit more personal. Despite the seething rage that is still oh so close to the surface, I managed to ask politely how much of the funds I would pay for the stamps would benefit cancer-havers.

Honestly, someone should have given me a medal. Gold medal worthy performance, it was.

But, after all my restraint and politeness and swallowing of the urge to throat punch each of the people in the post office that day, she didn’t know. She didn’t know if any of the funds used to purchase the pink stamps would benefit anyone except the post office. Even though she was asking me to buy the stamps with some sort of canned marketing spiel about helping those of us with breast cancer, she didn’t know how purchasing the stamps would actually do that.

Before you start to think I hate the post office, let me just say that I don’t. I buy stamps regularly and have been horrified at the attempts to undermine the necessary part of our democracy system that the post office has become. I have even received medication in the mail at times during my treatment for MBC, so it’s not the post office itself that was at issue.

What was at issue for me is that breast cancer was being used to sell something and, as far as the employee I was talking to was concerned, the benefit to the breast cancer community wasn’t known, wasn’t celebrated, and likely wasn’t happening.

She did throw in a few comments about how raising awareness about breast cancer helped people get their mammograms, helped people remember to do self-exams, helped the population at large in some way. That’s clearly not a help to those of us who already have a diagnosis – that distinction wasn’t something that employee thought about nor most that I’ve spoken with since then.

And that’s when I lost it. I don’t remember all that I said to her that day, but it wasn’t all that nice and it was intense, at least for me. None of that “awareness” helped me, I actually did find my tumor with a self-exam and I was already Stage IV. I didn’t have any issues getting a mammogram once I felt the lump, but my insurance company wouldn’t have covered it otherwise for two more years because I was only 38. I was tandem breastfeeding at the time I found my lump, and with me having found a lump they wouldn’t have wanted to do the mammogram anyway.

None of the platitudes or the marketing spiels or the “awareness” or the pink ribbons every

where will help those of us with MBC. The fact of the matter is, approximately 10-12% of us are diagnosed at Stage IV from the beginning despite doing everything those marketing campaigns promote. Then, 20-30% of those diagnosed at an early stage will progress to Stage IV despite doing everything their doctor’s tell them to.

When you see the ribbons this October and beyond, please #ThinkBeforeYouPink. Don’t buy a beribboned item just because its October. Check with the seller, find out what will happen to your hard-earned dollars. When you find out that no individual with breast cancer will actually benefit from your purchase, consider taking the same amount of money and donating it to, where 100% of the funds raised are allocated to research that benefits those of us who are Stage IV.

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