"Awareness months" need a reality check

by Xakota Espinoza / Beacon Staff • October 18, 2012

Tharp illustration awareness2
October is "awareness month" for seven causes and counting -- distracting and trivializing important conversations.
October is "awareness month" for seven causes and counting -- distracting and trivializing important conversations.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s also Bullying Prevention, Dwarfism, Autism, Domestic Violence, Cyber Security, and Down Syndrome awareness month. 

In the rainbow of these cause-devoted months — where promoted consciousness campaigns range from charity walks to serving pink cocktails on airplanes for an extra $2 that support “breast cancer awareness” — it seems we’re beginning to lose track of the true issues and are heading down a road to arbitrary triviality. In our Hallmark nation, every flip of the calendar now demands our attention for a plethora of causes — ranging from Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Month in March to Lupus Awareness Month in May — making it difficult to prioritize which issues to dedicate our attention toward. No one disease has a monopoly over a month, and the increasing assignment of issues to calendar dates is beginning to muddle what “awareness” even means. 

My mother passed away a year and a half ago at the age of 52 following a 20-month battle with stage IV breast cancer. The challenges, pain, and heartbreak associated with this disease are things I’m cognizant of every day of every month, not just October.

While there is nothing wrong with dedicating four weeks to advocating for causes, the efforts are spent manufacturing a tidal wave of pink rather than promoting information that could help save lives. In 2010, Fran Visco — a cancer survivor and first president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition — wrote a blog for the Huffington Post outlining her reasons for not “thinking pink” just because it’s October. In her post, Visco asks an important question: Despite all these pink ribbons, is the average woman educated about breast cancer prevention? 

Every year, she wrote, 500,000 women die of breast cancer throughout the world, with 40,000 in the U.S. alone. Since 1990, the number of women who die from breast cancer each day has decreased from 117 to 110. For Visco, these statistics are not worth celebrating. She wrote, “I don’t feel very pink about any of this. I feel angry. I am frustrated with the lack of progress. And I feel used. I have helped convince the government to give billions of dollars in research funding to the worldwide scientific community. I have seen others push to spend billions more in mammograms and billions in awareness campaigns. I have lost count of pink light bulbs. But I haven’t lost count of the too many women who have died. When will we call for an end to this madness? When will we get serious about ending breast cancer?”  

Like Visco, I also get angry at times. I see well-intentioned efforts like the “Save the Boobies” campaign and can’t help but feel that the disease that took my mother is being trivialized, or used as a public relations stunt. My mother didn’t care about her breasts being saved; she cared about her life being saved. 

Backed by the best intentions, awareness months do a great service by mobilizing and fundraising for various causes. The thousands of men, women, and children who unite every October to walk and fundraise for a cure while honoring survivors and those who have passed are inspiring and deserve to be praised and supported for their efforts. For many, Breast Cancer Awareness month is a way of acknowledging, appreciating, and paying respect to the millions of people who have fought against the disease, and that is undoubtedly admirable. However, amid  the walks, runs, and fundraisers, it becomes easy to lose sight of where awareness fits in. 

The issue here isn’t a deficiency of involvement, representation, or dedication, but rather the lack of a clearly defined mission. Every October, the only thing I am made more aware of are the pink adornments seen in stores, restaurants, and every brand that has declared itself to be fighting breast cancer and supporting awareness of the disease. 

Instead of millions of dollars being donated to the vague and hollow concept of “awareness,” these months need to focus on educating the masses on information vital to promoting their health. Beyond awareness, what truly needs to be spread is guidance. Women should be supplied with information ranging from what measures can be taken for disease prevention, to how to detect early symptoms, to where to go to receive an affordable mammogram. Direction like this will help steer these campaigns away from ambiguity and instead ground them in pragmatism, better defined goals, and resources devoted toward their intended purpose — helping people.

Breast cancer, Autism, domestic violence, bullying, and Down syndrome are by no means the only causes that require awareness, but they are issues 365 days a year, not just the 31 in October.