For Women With Breast Cancer, 'Pinktober' Isn't Always Empowering

"Breast cancer is not pink, it is not all about boobs and bras; breast cancer is terrifying and dangerous."

October makes Wendy Lawrence anxious.  

During her first Breast Cancer Awareness Month after being diagnosed with a stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma in 2012, Lawrence participated wholeheartedly. She wore the pink T-shirts and ribbons, and rallied together with her friends and family around the cause that had become so personal to her. 

Lawrence, 36, was declared cancer-free in 2013 after six rounds of chemotherapy and a bilateral mastectomy. But in the summer of 2014, she returned to her breast surgeon with concerns about signs of infection in one of her reconstructed breasts. A biopsy concluded that Lawrence had experienced a chest wall recurrence. Her cancer was back. Lawrence underwent a chest wall excision, six more rounds of chemotherapy and targeted radiation therapy. Because her cancer was hormone-receptor-positive, she also had her ovaries removed.

These days, Lawrence has mixed feelings about Breast Cancer Awareness Month. She told The Huffington Post that while raising awareness about how to identify the disease is crucial, people who want to support breast cancer patients can do so by funding research and helping patients understand their treatment options. She also explained how campaign slogans like "save second base" can be painful for women who may no longer have breasts. 

"[The slogans are] detrimental to our psyche, our confidence," she said. 

Lawrence recently finished with her second round of treatment, and is on maintenance meds. She told HuffPost that, nowadays, Breast Cancer Awareness month can trigger negative emotions like anxiety and frustration for her. 

"All of the awareness brings reminders of being diagnosed and memories of treatment," she said. "I can go back to both of the diagnosis days and feel the same pit in my stomach. I get instantly nauseous thinking of treatment. I guess it's almost like PTSD. It's hard enough to suppress reliving the moments on a regular day, I find it harder to suppress during October, with breast cancer in my face everywhere I turn." 

Wendy Lawrence in July 2014, a week after she was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. 
Wendy Lawrence in July 2014, a week after she was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. 

 According to oncologist Dr. Deena Graham, Lawrence is not alone. 

"October is a difficult month," Graham told The Huffington Post. "It's something that doesn't get spoken about a lot. [Breast Cancer Awareness month] is not meant to be negative, but this is the reality."

Approximately 90 percent of Graham's patients have breast cancer, and she has noticed a rise in their anxiety levels during October. She told HuffPost that she receives more phone calls from patients concerned about their cancer coming back during that month than any other. She also believes that October can bring back negative feelings for survivors, even those who are many years out from their initial diagnosis. 

Graham said that the month's focus on breast cancer prevention is not always helpful. 

"The vast majority of my patients are acutely aware of breast cancer," she said. "They did all the right things. They were always having their mammograms, going to their doctors, exercising, eating leafy green vegetables -- and they still got breast cancer."

Elpida Argenziano, a 40-year-old mother of three, was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in March 2015 -- six months after her first mammogram, which came back clean. Argenziano told The Huffington Post that she is disillusioned with Breast Cancer Awareness month. 

"Last October I dressed my baby boy in pink so he could participate in a breast cancer awareness walk," Argenziano wrote in a blog post about living with breast cancer.  "This October I know all those pink ribbons and all that money does nothing for people like me who will die from this awful disease. This October I know that Susan G. Komen died from metastatic breast cancer but that she would turn in her grave if she knew what little money raised in her namesake goes toward actually finding a cure."

The women I interviewed for this piece each emphasized the importance of spreading awareness, raising money for breast cancer research and urging women to take care of their health. However, they were also frustrated by how commercialized "Pinktober" has become. 

Kady Schwartz, left, with her sister Cassie Mecuk and Mecuk's 9-year-old daughter. Mecuk has stage 4 breast ca
Kady Schwartz, left, with her sister Cassie Mecuk and Mecuk's 9-year-old daughter. Mecuk has stage 4 breast cancer. 

"Breast Cancer Awareness month has always been a source of stress for my sister and I because we recognize the detrimental effects of it all," said 20-year-old Kady Schwartz, whose sister, 30-year-old Sgt. Cassie Mecuk, is currently hospitalized due to complications with her stage 4 breast cancer. "Breast cancer is not pink, it is not all about boobs and bras; breast cancer is terrifying and dangerous. Breast cancer is not something we can pay away. Fundraising is great, don't get me wrong, but my sister and I are both sick of people buying a pink spatula and thinking that's all they can do. It's not."

Instead, many women with breast cancer are calling for supporters to empower women, not focus on their bodies. Certain breast cancer awareness campaigns like "save second base" and #NoBraDay have received backlash for sexualizing women's bodies for the sake of "awareness." 

"The glorification of breasts in the name of 'awareness' is also pretty screwy," said 42-year-old Brandie Sellers, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. "We need to save women. Not breasts. Children need their mothers, not their mothers' boobs... We are so conditioned around having value because of how our breasts look that we say saving them is important."
Nikki Black, who was diagnosed at 23, and underwent chemotherapy and a bilateral mastectomy, told HuffPost that breast cancer made her feel disconnected from her body. She tattooed her reconstructed breasts in order to take back ownership of herself, but remains frustrated at sexualized breast cancer campaigns. (Note the photo of Black below depicts her bare chest.)

"The slogans for breast cancer awareness month are even 'save second base' and 'save the tatas,'" she said. "What about the woman? Why can't we just save women? Chances are, we're losing our breasts anyway, so you can see how it might affect your self-worth if all the world cares about are the things you lost."

Other survivors take issue with the more commercialized aspects of breast cancer awareness. (See: Companies selling pink pepper spray, pink buckets of chicken, and pink drill bits used for oil fracking).

Patients like Laura Chapa, age 35, are concerned that corporations like the NFL are making money off of token pink products sold in the name of "awareness." Chapa  was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2012, despite having followed all preventative recommendations including regular mammograms. She told HuffPost that she fears companies are cashing in on "Pinktober," but not donating enough of their profits to charity

Nikki Black with her tattoos. 
Nikki Black with her tattoos. 

 "While I'm all for the awareness and advocacy, I deplore the fact that companies are making money at the expense of my life and all those that have been lost to this disease," Chapa said. 

Some breast cancer charities acknowledge that Breast Cancer Awareness Month can be a challenging time for patients and survivors. A spokesperson for Susan G. Komen For The Cure told The Huffington Post: "[We are] sensitive to those who feel like 'all the pink' is a reminder of a very difficult time in their lives or that it somehow trivializes the disease. We think of it as a color that unites all the people suffering from breast cancer and all the people supporting them."

A representative from the American Cancer Society, one of the organizations that founded Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 1985, told The Huffington Post that they oppose the commercialization of breast cancer, and are aware of the mixed feelings pink ribbons can evoke:

'Pinkwashing' is the commercialization of breast cancer, which the American Cancer Society stands against. We work to end breast cancer as demonstrated by our Making Strides walk -- a key initiative to help further our life-saving progress. The American Cancer Society understands that people view pink ribbons differently. For millions, it means something very special like the memory of a loved one, support for someone facing the disease or hope for the next generation. For others, ribbons don't hold that kind of special meaning. We respect both sides of that discussion. It’s breast cancer that is the problem, and the Society is committed to help save more lives from this disease.

For women who find themselves feeling anxious during "Pinktober," one solution is urging people to educate themselves, advocate for research, and simply do more than sporting the color pink for 31 days out of the year. 

"I want to say to women, 'Know your body, know your options, know how to get it treated,'" said Lawrence. "Don't just wear a pink t-shirt and take off your bra." 

Also on HuffPost:

10 New Breast Cancer Findings