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Breast Cancer’s Pink Ribbons: Are We Overselling Awareness?

Today's guest post is by Elisabeth Dale, one of my close friends as well as a breast expert and founder of The Breast Life, a website that's all about breast health and well-being. Elisabeth is also the author of bOObs: A Guide to Your Girls, one of my favorite books because it talks about a woman's breasts at every stage of her life. If you're interested in keeping up with Elisabeth, you can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Elisabeth Dale

I have mixed feelings about breast cancer awareness month. Some of my ambivalence has to do with my family’s medical history. My mother was diagnosed in the late 1960s, when women stayed silent about the disease and had no say in their treatment. So I understand the importance of talking about and sharing information on the subject.

But over the years, my concerns have shifted. I’m less anxious about finding breast cancer in my own body than I am about finding a cure. I know that one in eight women are at risk during their lifetime, up from one in 11 back when pink ribbons first came on the scene. Despite advances in detection and treatment and millions of charitable dollars raised, it turns out that we aren’t much closer to finding out what causes breast cancer.

Sure, we can talk about being aware, wear a “save the boobies” bracelet or a “cop a feel” t-shirt, but has all the focus on being aware of our breasts reduced our chances of getting the disease in the first place?

Not really. Medical experts now advise against teaching women to conduct formal monthly breast self-exams. Breast Self Exams don’t save lives or find breast cancers earlier than mammograms. I’ve been getting mammograms for some 25 years now. Turns out that all those visits to a breast-imaging center weren’t necessary. Such screenings are no longer recommended for women under age 40, with the latest guidelines suggesting women wait until age 50 (unless there is a specific family history or exposure to radiation). Still charitable breast cancer organizations continue to tout and even overstate the benefits of BSE’s and mammograms, while neglecting to mention the risks.

Younger and younger women are cautioned to be “aware,” while the median age of breast cancer patients is 61 years old and over 50% of those diagnosed are older than 62. It’s more common to see pink promotions displaying perky, uplifted cleavage, rather than photos of mature, at-risk bosoms. Breast cancer may be deadlier in younger populations but it is still less common. Today’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month appears focused on saving an image of girlish breasts, not an aging woman’s life.

This over-emphasis on early detection once made me assume that if I were only diligent enough to find a lump in its earliest stages, I could count on being cured. But the truth is that scientists don’t know which of the many breast cancers are slower growing or more deadly. Researchers have only figured out a causal link in about 15% of all cases.

According to the National Breast Cancer Coalition, “The incidence of women diagnosed with advanced breast cancer has not changed. Rates of diagnosis of truly lethal disease have remained stable since 1975.” I’m left with the knowledge that my two biggest risk factors of being female and aging aren’t ones I can change. I have learned to remind myself that it is heart disease, and not breast cancer, that takes more women’s lives each year in the US. I’ve learned to focus on what I can do to keep myself in the best of heart health, knowing that regular exercise and a reasonably nutritious diet will benefit the whole of me, including my boobs.

I’ve also found new ways to support breast cancer research, education, and advocacy programs. The following initiatives are all focused on measuring greater progress:

  1. Before purchasing or participating in any Breast Cancer Awareness promotions, Think Before You Pink. Visit the Breast Cancer Action’s informative and consumer friendly website, where you’ll find a list of questions you can ask before buying pink products.
  2. Consider joining Dr. Susan Love’s Health of Women Study. This important international on-line medical questionnaire provides researchers with information they need to learn more about the causes of breast cancer.
  3. Check out the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s 2012 Breast Cancer Progress Report and read about their campaign to coordinate research efforts and private funding. Learn about the myths and truths surrounding Breast Cancer.

Women have always been the leaders and active participants in campaigns to raise “awareness.” We are also the biggest consumers of pink merchandise. My fear is that if we keep wrapping the problem in the same pretty pink ribbons, we’ll continue to get the same results.

What do you think about the campaigns to raise awareness and pink ribbons? Let's talk about it in the comments.

Last Updated on

Cora Harrington

Founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict. Author of In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie. I believe lingerie is fashion too, and that everyone who wants it deserves gorgeous lingerie.

8 Comments on this post

  1. Thank you for the timely article Elisabeth. I was recently scanned and put on a recall 6 months later, I got the all clear. Inbetween the time of the scare and the ‘all clear’ I spoke to various customers that come into our business and was aware for the first time and a bit shocked that breast cancer can be overdiagnosed and some women have undergone a mastecomy when in fact it was not needed.

    This morning there was an excellent article by the BBC where a prominent international specialist has recommended that the national screening programme be scapped, as many as 1 in 3 women receive a mastecomy when it is not necessary as the number of false positives are so high, however scientists in the UK agree that although it is not a perfect science, it does save lives

    Breast Cancer charities are well funded due to the high prominence they receive through the media, sport, celebrities etc and about two million women are screened every year in the UK.

    The review into the effectiveness of the breast screening programme was commissioned by Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health and is due to report back on Tuesday.

    • Thanks, Jacqui. I hadn’t read that article from the BBC so appreciate you passing it along. Immediate surgery is no longer recommended for some forms of prostate cancer in the United States. It will be interesting to see how the continued news and studies on over diagnosis impacts breast cancer screening recommendations.

  2. Moira Nelson says:

    Great Article Elisabeth. I find that there is a lot of emphasis on “Survivors” during Breast Cancer Awareness Month… I like to remind people of those suffering (and lost) from Metastic Breast Cancer. My dear friend Sylvia Walter passed away on September 21st after battling Metastatic Breast Cancer for nearly 20 years. Her daughter, Liz Walter, wrote a very poignant article on Breast Cancer Awareness last year… I believe it was posted to Bra La Mode on November 1, 2011. It’s a very raw piece…. Worth the read. Another great link is


  3. anon says:

    What I find so tiresome about the breast cancer thing is the continued focus on the breast part over the cancer part – all the ‘save the boobs’ etc. It isn’t the breasts we should be worried about saving, its the women’s lives that should concern us. I’m not a prude, I’m fine with people enjoying breasts for their own sake, but the focus seems so off to me.

  4. AlexaFaie says:

    A very interesting read and a good point made – if the money spent on breast cancer awareness is just that – for awareness, its not doing that much good in terms of finding a cure/better treatment.

    I’ve never bought into the whole “think pink” thing myself though as I just can not stand pink. I find it annoying that just because breast cancer awareness is seen as being a female only thing (which it shouldn’t be as men can get cancer in their pecs too – in the same region of the body) it has to be pink.

    I support charities which give money to research as opposed to awareness. Or to ones like “bowling for boobies” which helps women on low incomes to cope with healthcare costs should they develop breast cancer. I found it shocking that in America, you have to pay for cancer treatment and many women are unable to pay for it AND feed their families, pay their bills, etc etc, especially if they get little or no sick pay from work. In the UK we are lucky that healthcare is free to all (since its paid for from taxes) and so only have to pay if its for a private service, or cosmetics. You are even able to get breast implants on the NHS if you have lost them due to cancer. So yeah, things like that I support.

    • Hi Alexa.Thanks for reading. Good for you for giving directly to organizations that make a difference with regard to research and patient needs. We often forget about the added costs, such as lost wages due to lack of sick leave. While breast reconstruction is also mandated in the US, insurance doesn’t always cover all expenses. It’s great that organizations are filling those needs.

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