Breast cancer has been sexualized.
Cancer has been trivialized.
The message must change; big business has made cancer pretty.
That's the opinion of Ashley Doyle, Shellie Kendrick and Rachel Michelson and thousands more who have come out in support of their message.
As we look back on what has turned into "Pink-tober" -- a.k.a. "Breast Cancer Awareness Month," these women have teamed up on a mission to change the conversation about cancer.
Doyle, from Vancouver, British Columbia, Kendrick, from Atlanta, Georgia, and Michelson from San Francisco, California, created More than Pink, a video released earlier last month on YouTube and posted on Facebook. The video, which is a compilation of photographs of real women and men in different stages of their cancer treatment, is expected to go viral.
"I want cancer awareness to match reality," says Kendrick, 31, from Atlanta, Georgia, diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma stage 2B, breast cancer, on November 18, 2012.
The public face of cancer is dressing up those with the disease in our Sunday best; but that doesn't match the reality of what's going on behind the front door. We are the awareness and through this video we are sharing the harsh, horrible, scarring reality,
says Kendrick who had a double mastectomy in May 2013 and is currently one month away from the end of active treatment.
The "More than Pink" video isn't just about breast cancer. "We wanted to show the harsh reality of all cancers," adds Doyle, 30, from Vancouver, British Columbia, who was diagnosed in January 2012, also with stage 2B invasive ductal carcinoma.
Everyone should have a chance to show what they are going through, not just people with breast cancer. When we started collecting the photographs, we explained that we would be sharing the photos with the world. We asked for the reality, but we asked for happy photos, as well, to show that we are not broken,
"When I was first diagnosed," says Kendrick, VP at a social media management company,
I looked for pictures. I wanted to know what was going to happen, what I was going to look like but I couldn't find real pictures. I searched everything and I couldn't find anything. Not even in the doctor's office. I could only find pretty boobs; I could only find pink! It wasn't real. The first time I saw mastectomy pictures, they were my own.
The women met in a private Facebook group started by Doyle, a graphic designer. Called "Cancer Connection," one of the group's goals, besides offering support, is to constantly highlight all the "colors" of cancer. Referencing Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Michelson, 38, diagnosed with stage four colon cancer two years ago, declares, "Cancer is not just one month, it's every month. And it's not pink."
"As breast cancer survivors, we don't want pink to be our only voice," says Doyle.
We didn't choose pink. Cancer, even breast cancer, is diverse. Furthermore, the other cancers are not getting the recognition they 'deserve' because they are not sexy, they are not boobs.
"Somehow breast cancer turned into some kind of pretty bully cancer," adds Michelson, a stay-at-home mother with a six-year-old child.
This team of survivors, and those who have joined their conversation, says they are appalled that cancer has turned into an advertising adventure.
"I see a pink cell phone cover made in China, and I see people making a profit out of our disease," Doyle says, sounding frustrated.
"Is pink kitty litter getting people in the grocery store to say, 'Oh right, I need to get a mammogram?'" asks Michelson.
Yes, pink may have made people more aware of cancer, but what this should really be about is getting people to advocate for themselves and get treatment. We need to trust our bodies because we know our bodies. People who receive clean reports but remain skeptical need to go back to the doctor to say, 'but, I feel a lump,' and demand more tests, better answers. That's what I want to hear when it comes to campaigns for cancer awareness.
Michelson's cancer was "unusual" for a 30-something woman. A friend pulled her aside and told her, "you cannot f--- around with this." She explains,
I was young. colon cancer is supposed to be an old person's cancer. I was a 36-year-old woman at the time and I went to my doctor with symptoms of colon cancer. So it was very easy to assume that other things were going wrong. Colon cancer wasn't top of mind, so there was a little bit of that, 'I'm sure its nothing.'
"More than Pink" was conceived in response to a Facebook campaign that is believed to have originated in France. It was subsequently "taken down" when it was repeatedly tagged as offensive. "The 'Free the ta-ta's' campaign' or 'Don't wear a bra day,' planned for October 13th, was offensive," says Michelson. "It wasn't supporting anything. It was only sexualizing breast cancer."
"Worse, no bra day was planned for 'Metastatic Breast Cancer Day,'" says Doyle. "October 13th is the only day set aside for this disease. Metastatic Breast Cancer is stage four breast cancer, and it's generally incurable because the cancer cells have spread to other organs in the body," explains Doyle. "It's different than with other cancers where it seems that people can go into remission once it's spread; but once it's spread with breast cancers, it's much, much harder to get into remission."
Discussion about the "Free the ta-ta's campaign" on the "Cancer Connection" Facebook page became heated. That's when Doyle decided to do something about it. So, she put the word out on FB about her mission and asked men and women to send real photos of themselves in all stages of cancer; photos that showed the truth about what cancer looks like. Michelson jumped on board to spread the message, and Kendrick put together the video. It all happened quickly: In less than one-week the video had been produced and uploaded to YouTube.
"A lot of people have asked me, 'why did you make this video and show such graphic images?'" says Kendrick, who also suffered from non-Hodgekins lymphoma when she was 13.
My reasoning is that breast cancer doesn't get the props that it deserves, neither does cancer in general. I felt my lump in May of 2012 but I didn't get diagnosed for months. If I had seen these real images of what cancer does, of these breasts and women without hair it would have changed my reaction when I felt the lump. I wouldn't have waited so long. The video is about the things that no wants to talk about,
says Michelson. "And whether we show it with our words or show our scars, it is the reality and we need to say it and change the conversation."
Doyle, Kendrik and Michelson say that the on-going, current campaign to "talk about" and become more "aware of" cancer has done its job. People now know about it and talk about it. But the side effect of this awareness campaign is that big business has changed the conversation. "They strategized to piggy-back and make money off the efforts to publicize what used to be a private illness. In so doing they changed the voice of the message," says Michelson. "It's made cancer pretty in pink with its ribbons, t-shirts, NFL shoes and kitty litter."
And worse, says Kendrick, "it's made it sexual," with campaigns showing big-busted women sporting tight pink t-shirts (rich with a product placement) or baseball-infused slogans such as "save second base."
"Cancer isn't sexual, and it isn't pink. It's horrible, scarring and scary," Doyle, Kendrick and Michelson all say.
And that's the point of the "More than Pink," video, say the producers and the thousands who have supported it in its debut. "It's finally an honest look at the devastating affects of cancer," says Doyle.
Lisa Frost, 48, of Potomac, Maryland, who met the producers of "More than Pink," on-line in the "Cancer Connection" Facebook group, sent in photographs for the video because she supports the mission and the need to change the message: "People are dying from all kinds of cancers. So, what is so special about breast cancer?" asks Frost, who was diagnosed two years ago with invasive lobular carsinoma stage 3C. "Breasts are sexy, and sex sells. Period. Yet, with all of the exploitation of pink and 'Breast' cancer, in the past 50 years, deaths related to cancer in general are unchanged. Can you believe that? Unchanged in 50 years," says the emergency room nurse and mother of four daughters.
The reaction to the video has been positive, with 500 likes in less than a week and nearly four thousand views. "The initial reaction has been awesome," says Michelson. "I haven't heard of anyone being offended."
Adds Doyle, "If someone does get offended, then they don't have to watch it. It's good that they saw it. Cancer is horrible. It's devastating; the scars are there forever. If someone doesn't like seeing reality, tough; we have to live with it."
"You realize that after seeing these images, that cancer is not pretty. The pictures are not cute and pink. Breast cancer, especially, is getting pretty-fied... it's not pretty," says Kendrick.
Her sentiment is echoed by those who have commented on the "More than Pink" YouTube page, such as:
Kathy Dukes: "This is what cancer looks like."
David Tabatsky: "Tell it like it is! Thanks!"
Maria Snow: "This is how it really is. I had over 100 medical appointments in 18 months. A lot lot lot of pain and hurt and scary sadness. But roaring today anyway!!!"
Patricia Stoop: "This video re-inspires me when my mets are getting me low."
Virginia Champoux: "THIS is cancer people. this is what it looks like." And the next day Champoux commented again, "since I found this video, i have watched it at least a dozen times and it's become my theme song. thank you to everyone who participated in sharing their pics. it's really helping. putting the REAL face of cancer out for everyone to see."
John Ross: "Really brings it home that cancer is a nasty piece of work."
The producers of the "More than Pink" video will continue to collect photos and post them weekly as part of their mission to change the conversation and show the stark reality of cancer.
"Awareness needs to be taken to the next level," says Michelson. "We need to...
1) Bring light to the nauseous 'pink-ification' of breast cancer.
2) Send the message that cancer is not an "old person's" disease and can hit regardless of age.
3) Teach consumers to be wise when supporting causes."
"So, before you buy your pink windshield wipers, pink garbage cans, pink ribbon balloons and pink cookies," Frost warns, "please think about what you are buying and how it might not be doing a thing to help fight cancer at all. Most of the money isn't going into research." The producers of, "More than Pink" recommend the documentary, "Pink Ribbons Inc.," a Canadian Documentary. "You'll quickly see that buying pink products or taking your bra off will do nothing to help the cause," says Doyle.
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Message on the video, Published on Oct 13, 2013
Pink is everywhere in today's world. But there is more to cancer awareness than just a pretty colored ribbon. We are more than the products being pushed for 'the cure.' We are more than the sexualization of a disease that takes so many lives. We are more than silly FB status updates showing "support." We are more than just one month. We are more than just one color. It's time to push pass one cancer having the loudest voice. It's time all cancers be acknowledged equally. #realcancerawareness