You have probably seen a barrage of pink products everywhere you go in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But what does breast cancer awareness actually mean? Is it pink ribbons? Is it knowing your risk of developing breast cancer? Is it awareness of what breast cancer patients actually go through? How do we effectively support the cause?
As a stage IV cancer patient, a lot of the marketing around Breast Cancer Awareness Month can be difficult to look at. It’s portrayed as pretty and pink, something that you fight through but then overcome. This isn’t the case for many breast cancer patients, especially those of us who are stage IV and rarely see ourselves represented during breast cancer awareness month. For us, Stage IV breast cancer is not curable, and it will eventually be terminal.
What Does it Mean to Have Stage IV Breast Cancer?
When we talk about stage IV breast cancer, we are talking about a cancer that has metastasized from its original location in the breast and spread to other parts of the body (most commonly, the liver, lungs, brain, and bones). Cancer that remains in the breast cannot kill you – breast cancer will only kill you once it becomes stage IV and has spread to other parts of the body. Many of my friends have asked me if stage IV breast cancer is not portrayed much because it is rare. The answer? It’s not rare.
Here are some statistics to put it into perspective:
- 20-30% of early-stage breast cancer patients will become stage IV at some point in their lives
- It is estimated that there are over 168,000 people living with stage IV breast cancer in the US
- The number of people living with stage IV breast cancer is expected to increase by almost 50% by 2030
- Only 28% of people with stage IV breast cancer live more than 5 years past their diagnosis
- Only 2-5% of breast cancer funding goes toward stage IV breast cancer
These statistics are sobering, and they can often make us feel helpless.
Here are some actionable things that you can do to support the breast cancer cause this Breast Cancer Awareness Month…
Know your own risk
Awareness starts with you, so the most important thing you can do this Breast Cancer Awareness Month is understand your own risk of breast cancer. Do you have a history of breast cancer in your family? Do you have dense breasts? Do you live an active lifestyle and eat healthy? Do you drink alcohol? All of these things and more play into your breast cancer risk. Bright Pink has created this excellent risk assessment tool in order to assess your own breast cancer risk and be more informed about your health.
Commit to performing your monthly breast self-exams
Breast self- exams are an incredibly easy, free, and effective tool to learn your own body and catch breast cancer early. But many women don’t regularly perform their breast self-exams. We often have a feeling of “I’m too young” or “it won’t happen to me,” but I’m here to tell you that I had this same mentality, and I was diagnosed at age 27 with stage IV breast cancer. It can happen to anyone at any age, and it’s important to stay on top of your health screenings, especially since you can do it for free at home.
If you’ve never done a breast self-exam before and need a little guidance, check out the free Know Your Lemons Breast Check app. This app doubles as a period tracker and lets you know the best time in your cycle to check your breasts, as well as guiding you through the self-check process and helping you recognize all the symptoms you should keep an eye on.
Support organizations that fund research
Ask someone diagnosed with breast cancer what their most and least favorite breast cancer charities are, and you might be surprised by the answer. Some of the most popular nonprofits in the breast cancer space are actually really disliked by many breast cancer patients for putting profits before patients. When you choose to support a breast cancer charity (or any charity, really), do some research to find out whether they are liked within the community and actually support the cause they say they do.
As a stage IV patient, I want to stress how important research is. Our cancer will eventually outsmart our treatments, forcing us to move on to the next treatment, and so on, and many people do run out of treatments. I currently have a friend in hospice currently because she has no more treatment options left, even though she has much more fight left in her. Research is the only way to find more treatments and extend our lives, so I highly recommend supporting organizations that fund stage IV breast cancer research. My personal favorite charity for stage IV breast cancer is Metavivor.
What is Breast Cancer Awareness “pinkwashing” and what can you do to prevent it?
Every Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a tidal wave of pink merchandise hits stores with everything from curling irons to bagels to jewelry purporting to support the breast cancer cause. However, many of these products do nothing for the cause beyond slapping a pink ribbon on the packaging. This is what we in the breast cancer community call “pinkwashing”, or — basically exploiting the breast cancer cause for profit or PR purposes.
This is hurtful to many breast cancer patients as we are consistently seeing our trauma being used to as a way increase sales and not to support those that are suffering and dying within the breast cancer community. If you see an item that claims to benefit breast cancer, ask what organization benefits, how much is being donated, and where the funds are going. If you are not satisfied with the answer, don’t buy the product, and call the company out.
Check in on your breast cancer friends this month
As I mentioned in my previous point, seeing the tidal wave of pink can be really triggering for many of us in the breast cancer community. We’re constantly seeing our trauma plastered over every store, billboard, and city bus we see, and it can be emotionally draining. If you have a friend with breast cancer in your life, or even a breast cancer survivor, check in on them and see how they’re doing. They might need a listening ear, a safe space to vent, or a distraction from all the pink that comes in October and you can do a world of good by supporting them through that.
The bottom line is that it is important to understand what this month is really all about – it’s not pretty and pink, it’s a deadly reality for many. Seek to understand the true goal of the awareness month, and find ways you can make real change for those in the community that need your support.