Should Breast Cancer Awareness Be About the Breast More Than the Disease?

Should breast cancer awareness ever be more about the breast than it is the cancer?

I wonder when I see ads like the one at the left by Estee Lauder.

Over the last few years there’s been a general sexualizing of the disease that troubles me.

Don’t get me wrong. Part of the early genius of Susan G. Komen for the Cure and her sister breast cancer charities was the recognition that breast cancer was different for women than, say, lung cancer, even if a cancer in the breast might be only a few centimeters away from a cancer in the lung.

One reason why Komen et al acquired so much momentum is because there’s a personalness to breast cancer that also touches things like feminine sexuality. Survivors fight more than just the disease. Even as a clueless man I get that.

Breast cancer affects a women’s sense of self in ways that other diseases, say, heart disease—which kills twice as many women in the United States as breast cancer—do not.

But I don’t think the cause is well-served by ads like this, which I found in the November 2011 Lucky magazine. Lucky, of course, casts itself as the ‘magazine about shopping.’ On the cover of the November 2011 issue is Kim Kardashian, who, if reports are to be believed, is all about shopping, too. Lucky is a young woman’s magazine. I have a hard time imagining this ad running in Town & Country. It's evident to me that with this ad Estee Lauder is deliberately targeting young women.

The ad itself is ostensibly about raising awareness of breast cancer for young women. And maybe entice them to find out the name of the pink Estee Lauder lipstick the models are wearing.

Now I’m sure the creative director for the ad (what are the chances it’s a man?) would say something like “young women think they’re immune to breast cancer. The creative demonstrates that they have something precious to lose unless they practice the principles of early detection.”

But this is counter-factual. According to the latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics of the 1.1 million women who have received a breast cancer diagnoses in the United States from 1999 to 2004 just 5,075 were aged 20-29, about 1,015 per year. By contrast, 128,604 American woman aged 55-59 were diagnosed with breast cancer during the 5-year period, the highest rate among all age ranges.

In other words, the crest of the bell curve for breast cancer diagnoses in America are for women in their 50s. Are there young women who are exceptions? Sure. About 1,000 a year.

(Citation: United States Cancer Statistics: 1999 - 2004 Incidence Archive, WONDER On-line Database. United States Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Cancer Institute; August 2008. Accessed at on Oct 11, 2011 11:56:55 PM).

Moreover, young women could hardly have missed breast cancer awareness message between the walks, the runs, the ads, the oodles of cause marketing, and a widespread media and sponsorship blitz that includes the NFL!

Man or woman, there’s few places in North America where you could get away from it if you wanted too.

Let me illustrate with a personal anecdote: the other day I was watching a panel discussion on breast cancer on the Spanish-language ESPN over lunch at a Brazilian restaurant. The panel’s guest was the deputy director of oncology at a Mexican cancer institute… my Spanish is of the high school variety... so I can't be more specific than that. I watched in wonder as the good doctor showed the host… also a man… how to do a self-exam! The pink ribbons on set made it clear they weren’t talking about the heartbreak of male breast cancer either.

No, this ad is about sexualizing the disease.

As a culture we can do better.

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