Be The Change Part 1: Waving Pink Ribbons

As I finished up school for the semester, Pinktober came and went along with most of the marketing that goes with it. The prevalence of pink ribbons everywhere reminds me to celebrate my own life, as my breast cancer surgery took place dead center in the middle of October three years ago. Back then, the fact that someone was wearing a pink ribbon made me feel like they were on MY side even though they didn’t know me – or know I was undergoing treatment. I felt a part of a sisterhood instead of a freakshow.  Knowing I was not fighting alone saved my life just as much as my treatment, giving me courage and support to do what I needed to do no matter how hard. That is not a small thing to someone newly diagnosed.

But this October, my email was full of blogs from breast cancer survivors who were fed up with the marketing surrounding Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Tired of Komen’s attempts to copy-write the term “for the cure” and lack of actual dollars spent on finding that cure (relative to furthering Komen brand marketing), these women were justifiably frustrated. As the media portrays survivorship with the effervescent cheerfulness of pink boa’ed women marching, women remain sick, un-cured and looking for away to prolong their life with some dignity. There is justifiable concern that we have glossed over the reality of a disease we barely understand and don’t know how to prevent – one which we can only treat with highly invasive methods, and have not come close to curing. Many women are not celebrating during breast cancer awareness month; they are at home on couches and in bed, frustrated that they are forgotten, knowing they will likely die before a cure is ever found. An unpopular story in the media seeking a positive light on the current “favorite” disease.

I understand.

As we celebrate or survivorship, these women with metastic cancer, who have lost their hair AGAIN, who are suffering from lymphedema and having to display handicap parking stickers before they are forty because they are too sick to walk, must not be forgotten. For them pink ribbons are not enough. Too frequently these women, still fighting long months and years after their diagnosis, get pushed to the background in the “fight”, while we who have survived march and wave pink ribbon flags, and go about our lives more or less as we had before.

I understand the frustration around pink ribbon everything and fundraisers that don’t result in significant change. But, we must start somewhere. “Small” things can make a difference while we also keep pushing for better services, treatments and a cure.

Recently, a breast cancer blogger I follow wrote a blog piece about whether or not it is okay to “indoctrinate middle school kids into the pink ribbon culture” by public schools endorsing a breast cancer fundraiser to “pink the town”. These youth raised significant funds for the program Breast Friends, (a resource for ALL women’s cancers) that provides (among other things) financial resources for women undergoing cancer treatment – a highly worthy cause.  And yet, she felt questions were raised regarding this praiseworthy fundraising event.

The article questions making breast cancer more important than other diseases, and raises concerns regarding the predominance of “preventative” education – inaccurately promoted educational content for a disease we have no idea how we get. Then there is the disturbing prevalence of using a disease to raise money for an organization in which only a fraction of the proceeds go to good use that is tainting even worthwhile fundraising efforts.

But, I think our frustration in how slow a cure is coming about causes some of us to be blind to the good that this movement has done and how  small things have drastically impacted the lives of women. Even the fact we TALK publically about breast cancer now is astounding to me.  All this hoopla has made a difference.

The thing that is most important about pink ribbons, a whole month set aside for awareness or kids saving pennies, is that it empowers people to make a difference in someone’s life.  Small change DOES matter in terms of resources and emotional support for patients and survivors.  And when we look past the marketing, we can choose to see fundraisers and pink ribbons as a reminder that we are not alone. People care about our struggles and want to do something – even children too young to know what the loss of a piece of our womanhood mean or what the reality of fighting for our lives looks like.  Empowering people to make even a small difference doesn’t take away from anyone – it opens our hearts to give more, and also teaches us to receive.

We survivors need to know we are not forgotten – all of us – healed, sick, celebrating or still in treatment. Cancer goes on for us every day, long past when the people around us have forgotten that we ever had it.  We still have to look in the mirror and face our fears in the doctors’ office.  We have been tough, but we still have our moments and people want us to know they haven’t forgotten.

Pink ribbons are not just a marketing campaign by big business, though it may have started that way.  It has morphed into everyday people trying to show support and make some tiny bit of difference. Though  breast cancer is no more important than other cancers,  it just happens to be one that so many of us are profoundly affected by through no fault of our won.  Every day people need to feel empowered – they need to feel like they have something they can do.  And, to the newly diagnosed, this outpouring of love and caring disguised as a pink ribbon, makes them feel less alone in days filled with  grief, uncertainty and fear.

Without a doubt we need to pay attention to how we donate and show support — and there are far more effective organizations than Komen. Funds are needed every month, not just October and not just for breast cancer. But because one organization has used a disease to its own marketing ends, does not mean that we should turn our backs on doing what we can –regardless of our age- to show support and make someone’s life a tiny bit easier.

Though pennies from kids may not find a cure, they will keep the power on in the home of a woman spending her money on cancer treatment. That deeply affects a life, as a does a support phone call from a volunteer or a ride or hotel room while undergoing treatment – all services that are funded by donations large and small by people who care.

Awareness, over-the-dinner-table-conversation, and pennies put into action by every day people are the ONLY way we are going to affect change in any sphere – politically or medically. Choose organizations that provide patient quality of life services or local, community resources. Keep the conversation alive, stay educated and use/donate your money wisely. We absolutely need to hold big fundraising establishments like Komen accountable for how they spend our donated money.  But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – donating to the right organizations can make a huge difference in the day to day lives of cancer patients. And showing support to patients goes further than you may think.

There is also a more global reason to not question whether kids doing a fundraiser is a “good idea”. Because those kids felt they made a difference, they will grow up believing in the importance of doing what they can. Our world needs less cynicism and more empowerment. As we teach our youth they can make a difference, they will feel their actions matter. And they will seek out other ways to make a difference.  Someday it could be you that benefits from their unselfishness. Our actions always matter.

This is how we change the world. Change happens through small events -each of us doing what we can – large or small. Ghandi said “Be the change you want to see in the world” . Change, revolution, healing, and a cure start with each of us.

For more information check out:

Breast Friends


The American Cancer Society

The Young Survival Coalition

The American Cancer Society Relay for Life

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