October means pink everything everywhere in celebration of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But what does it mean for survivors and those currently battling breast cancer? October is a double-edged sword for some survivors. One the one hand, it can be celebratory and empowering, but on the other, it can be a month-long reminder of their battle and a re-traumatizing experience. Holly Burns’s New York Times article, “For Some Breast Cancer Survivors, October is the Cruelest Month,” highlights this struggle.
First and foremost, this is not to take away from or belittle the importance of October as a month that is rightly dedicated to bringing awareness to breast cancer survivors and fundraising for research. It’s important that resources continue to be allocated to breast cancer research and organizations. In the US alone, there is a 1 in 8 chance a woman will develop a form of breast cancer.
Breast cancer can be treatable when detected in its early stages. It is important to bring attention to its prevalence and existence. This acknowledgment of October as a month of struggle strives to bring light to survivors’ struggles and an alternative narrative that isn’t always heard. Breast cancer is personal to so many people, and being aware of and understanding the potential anxieties can help survivors support each other, especially during October.
For some survivors, October is a really hard month to get through. It can be a month of inescapable memories wrapped up in pink. Constantly hearing about other people’s stories can be triggering and cause worry of their own cancer returning. This is known as a phenomenon called the ‘anniversary effect/reaction;’ people may feel anxious, upset, or have unsettling thoughts or feelings at a particular time of year or around the time of an anniversary of a significant event. October can become one of these times that triggers the anniversary effect because everywhere you look, everything has become pink. It can be a reminder to survivors of their diagnosis, treatment, or the uncertainty of that time.
Additionally, not every breast cancer story comes in a tidy pink box the way it tends to be marketed. The stories that are promoted are those with happy endings, but that is obviously not always the reality. Some battle with metastatic or terminal, incurable cancer, and seeing all the success stories is a dark reminder of their less fortunate circumstances. The marketing of Breast Cancer Awareness Month also leads to pink-washing, in which companies take advantage of the pink ribbon or the support of breast cancer organizations as a marketing technique to promote their own pink-wrapped products. More generally, October can produce a lot of performative activism. Personally, all the fall sports teams at my high school wore pink jerseys during October in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. While this could be a supportive sentiment, I’m not sure my school actually did anything concrete to support breast cancer organizations. Specific teams aimed their community service towards breast cancer, but I can’t say for sure if the school did anything other than pink-wash.
Once October hits, everything turns pink. But as soon as November rolls around, all these companies forget about breast cancer and move onto the next marketable thing. For survivors and those currently battling, breast cancer doesn’t have a month-long timer. The co-founder of The Breasties, a nonprofit organization for people impacted by breast and gynecological cancers, Bri Majsiak says, “Breast cancer is 365 days a year, not 31.”
Breast cancer isn’t a trend for companies to join the bandwagon of. It’s a terrifying reality that has everlasting effects on its victims. The pretty pink products do not represent the pain that breast cancer survivors have endured. The pink ribbon is not a reflection of the experience of breast cancer. October fails to bring awareness to the bad memories and emotions for those who have suffered from breast cancer. It fails to bring awareness to those who have lost their battle or those who have lost a loved one to this horrible disease. It fails to represent the diversity of breast cancer stories. We must be sensitive to what this month means for everyone affected by breast cancer. If someone in your life has a connection to breast cancer, don’t be afraid to ask how you can best support them during this time.
October is also a good time to educate yourself on breast cancer and get into the habit of having regular breast checks. Remind and encourage your friends and family to get mammograms, the screening test for breast cancer. Some women may feel apprehensive about getting mammograms, but they are essential for detecting breast cancer early on.
Here are a few things you can do to help:
Donate directly to organizations that research breast cancer and help those battling breast cancer.
Talk to your friends or family who are battling breast cancer or dealing with its lasting effects and ask what you can do to best support them.
Visit the SCAR Project to get a glimpse of what breast cancer and survivorship really looks like, beyond the pink ribbons.
Educate yourself and go get your mammogram.