Guest blog by Melissa Sakow from the SHARE Cancer Support.
Many of us know someone who’s been affected by breast cancer. It’s the most common cancer in women worldwide, affecting as many as 1 in 8 women in the United States. And during International Breast Cancer Awareness month, its presence looms even larger: pink ribbons everywhere, pink branded goods to buy, even sports teams “going pink.” But what does all the pink mean? What does it mean to be truly “aware” of breast cancer?
1. Real awareness means active understanding of your risk of breast cancer.
There are steps you can take to feel more empowered in case of a diagnosis of any disease, like knowing your body, maintaining copies of your medical records, and developing strong communication with your doctor. But it’s also important to know and strategize around your specific risk for breast cancer, and to regularly check for signs. There are over a dozen risk factors that increase your chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer. Some of the biggest are:
- gender (women)
- age (although young women can and sometimes do develop breast cancer)
- genetics (although only 5-10% of breast cancer is hereditary)
- estrogen exposure (like long-term use of hormone replacement therapy)
- ethnicity (white women have a higher risk of developing breast cancer, but black women are more likely to die of it)
- weight (obesity)
Signs include: lumps, pain, swelling, inflammation, skin dimpling, nipple inversion, and other changes to or around the breast. Some risk factors are beyond your control, but some are not: many people can lower their risk just through lifestyle changes like eating and exercising reasonably. During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, educate yourself on the signs of breast cancer, take steps to assess your risk level, and start managing the factors you can.
2. Real awareness means compassion, not consumerism.
Slogans like “fight like a girl,” “kick cancer to the curb,” and even “save the ta-tas” abound during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But the constant emphasis on the power of positivity, coupled with the barrage of pink T-shirts, bracelets, mugs, and even footballs, can make breast cancer patients and survivors ashamed of or distracted from their very real struggles just when they need the most support.
Despite what cute marketing suggests, breast cancer is not an easy, tidy, or feminine experience. In fact, breast cancer is a serious, sometimes devastating, disease. Treatment can last 10 years or longer, and side effects can be crippling; depression, severe weight fluctuations, changes in relationships, grief, loss of memory, neuropathy, body-image disorders, and anxiety are all normal even after breast cancer is “over.” That doesn’t mean anyone should be living in fear of breast cancer. Instead, it should prompt us to treat those we know who have experienced breast cancer with an attitude of genuine curiosity and compassion, not slapdash positivity.
3. Real awareness means acknowledging metastatic breast cancer, too.
Breast cancer, like all cancers, is classified by stage. Most people diagnosed with breast cancer are diagnosed at Stage I, Stage II, or Stage III, which means that their cancer is confined to the breast or surrounding area. Breast cancer that remains in these stages is treatable; though treatment can be grueling, the cancer will eventually go into remission. But virtually 100% of people diagnosed with Stage IV, or metastatic, breast cancer will die of it. Metastatic breast cancer (MBC) occurs when breast cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Treatment for MBC is life-long. There is no cure. Yet only 7% of all research dollars go towards understanding metastases! People with MBC also often feel ignored or shamed by the larger breast cancer community, especially during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, because their experience doesn’t fit into an uplifting narrative. To be truly “aware” of what breast cancer means, we need to elevate the experiences of those who are marginalized within the breast cancer community and strive to understand and meet their needs. That’s why SHARE offers distinct services, and a separate HealthUnlocked community, just for people with MBC.
If you want to show your support for breast cancer during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, start by educating yourself about risks and symptoms, and take steps towards actively managing your health. Then, if you can, try reaching out to someone you know who’s been affected by breast cancer, and ask: “If you’re comfortable telling me, what has this experience been like for you?” “How are your spirits?” or even, “When can I cook you a meal?” If you’re interested in making a financial contribution, don’t buy something. Most pink-ribbon items only contribute a percentage of your purchase and don’t specify where the money will go. Instead, educate yourself about organizations who will use your money to directly fund research or support patients, and consider donating in particular to organizations that support those with metastatic breast cancer. And remember: awareness is only the beginning. Caring for yourself and others is the journey.
To find out more about breast cancer, metastatic cancer and ovarian cancer by visiting the SHARE communities on HealthUnlocked: