October—the month of pumpkin spice lattes, Halloween costume planning, trips to the apple orchard and pumpkin patch, and busting out our boots, jeans, and plaid scarves. October is also the month there’s pink—everywhere. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and what we see is a whole lot of pinkwashing.
I’m a two-time breast cancer survivor, and this month is bittersweet for me. I appreciate the awareness brought to a devastating, relentless disease. I really do. However, the pinkwashing is out of freaking control. I don’t understand how a company selling cereal, who slaps a pink ribbon on their box, who only donates .0000001 of their sales to breast cancer research, is helping me or others like me. October makes me want to both celebrate and bury myself under my comforter until November. Breast cancer is so much more than pink-everything in October. Women need to take their breast health seriously every month, not just in October.
The statistics are staggering. One in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetimes. 5% of these women will be young, like me, meaning under age forty. Though genetic testing can be a helpful tool, only 3% of women diagnosed have the BRCA1 or BRCA2 (breast cancer) genes. We have learned a lot about breast cancer, but we have a long, long way to go.
The breast cancer I know is a beast, a jerk, a liar, and a thief. Breast cancer isn’t some sort of magical, pink unicorn ride through a field of lush, pink flowers. Not even close. Breast cancer is absolutely brutal. It took a huge toll on not only my physical health, but my emotional, mental, and spiritual health as well. Even when a patient is finished with treatment, breast cancer remains imprinted, forever, on our minds.
We do have some effective treatment options for some women, thankfully. But breast cancer treatment has a long, long way to go. Women today need to take steps to protect their breast health—as of today.
Before you tell me that you aren’t at risk, I didn’t think I was either. I didn’t have a family history, my genetic tests were negative, I got an annual well-woman and clinical breast exam, and I did self-exams. I ate healthy. I exercised. I didn’t smoke, drink excessively (like ever), or was overweight. I didn’t work a night shift (outside of the times our four kids were newborns—and then that was feeding every three hours). Basically, I didn’t have the red flag risk factors. I figured I was in the clear—so much so, that I didn’t give breast cancer much thought at all. It was all fine, until it wasn’t.
I was diagnosed when I was thirty-five. I found lump through a self-exam. It appeared fine on imaging, but I had a nagging suspicion and got a second opinion. I had stage 0, DCIS, breast cancer. I chose to have a bilateral mastectomy. Three and a half years later, as I was marching my way toward the five-year survivorship mark, I discovered a mass in my chest wall. Scans and a biopsy confirmed my greatest fear. I had breast cancer—again.
I checked in with a breast radiologist, Dr. Anjali Malik to get her tips. What do we need to be doing, all year long, to keep ourselves well and pay attention to our breast health? Because as I’ve already shared with you, buying a breast cancer ribbon shaped bagel is NOT it.
First, she acknowledges the harm in pinkwashing. Among those in the breast cancer community, pinkwashing can be insulting and terrorizing by “the sea of meaningless pink in October.” She also adds that ironically, “products that directly increase the risk for breast cancer,” like wine, for example, are slapping pink ribbons on their labels.
What can we do to take care of our breast health year round? Dr. Malik wants us to get our annual mammograms, if we have “average risk” beginning “at the age of 40.” In your twenties (yes!), discuss with your doctor that you’d like to “calculate your risk to determine your screening protocol” and figure out if genetic testing may benefit you. (If you haven’t done this yet, do it now.)
If possible, dig into your family’s medical history, and make sure that each time you see your doctor, you share any new information. She shares that “any new cancer diagnosis in a family member may change your risk.”
What about self-exams? I’m a big advocate of them, as I found my own cancer—twice—via a self breast and chest exam. Should we do a self-exam, once a month every month? Yes. Dr. Malik says to do a “monthly, mid-cycle” breast exam—but don’t stop there. Get a yearly clinical breast exam.
There’s also prevention. So many of us feel like we’re at the mercy of genetics or chance, but there are preventative measures we can take to lower our risk of getting breast cancer. Dr. Malik says that “maintaining a healthy weight” as well as “reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption” is a smart move.
I recently completed radiation therapy for my second breast cancer battle. I asked my radiation techs why they haven’t been as busy with patients lately. They reported to me that since the pandemic has started, patients are not getting their routine cancer screenings as much as before. Dr. Malik shared with me that this is true—and the results are alarming. She shares that “there will be thousands of missed or delayed diagnoses in women who delayed their mammograms in 2020 and early 2021, with numbers projecting an increase of almost 3000 deaths over the next decade.” This is “due to pandemic-related delays in obtaining imaging and cancer care.”
Oh, and there’s more. “Studies have also shown that missing just one mammogram impacts breast cancer morbidity and mortality,” she says. So, stop making excuses. Dr. Malik told me, “We are encouraging women to mask up” and get their mammograms, because early detection really does save lives.
Before you decide to spend your well-earned dollars on something with a pink ribbon on the packaging, ask yourself, is this really helping prevent or treat breast cancer? What can I do, right now, to honor my own breast health and encourage others to do the same? Supporting pinkwashing in October is not, my friends, as fun or effective as it seems.
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