Breast cancer awareness? Ali Schofield isn’t feeling it

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I for one will be glad to see the back of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Everything from cakes to car tyres has been given the girly pink treatment, the trademark colour of breast cancer since the pink ribbon motif was introduced 25 years ago.

Examples of shrivelled lemons meant to represent what can go wrong with breasts have done the rounds and folk have shared half-naked pictures of themselves wearing their fanciest bras on charity walks.

There was one meme that accompanied the pink ribbon logo “Save a life, grope your wife”, which I assume didn’t come signed off by a charity marketing team, but I suppose it could have done. Certainly there’s a charity called CoppaFeel, which encourages young women to do just that. Its so-called Shower Hijack campaign involves stickers and door hangers designed for public showers with the epithet “Lather up! Grab your boobs”.

Quite apart from the pitfalls of using the language of sexual assault in a shower cubicle, I’m not convinced sexualising the process of feeling for diseased breast tissue is going to have people rushing to the docs to whip out their “norks” (a visit to CoppaFeel’s website is better than an episode of The Inbetweeners for euphemisms).

There’s even a range of charity “tit-tees” designed by a blogger who’s beaten breast cancer with “KNOCKERS”, “JUBBLIES” and “MAMMORIES” emblazoned across the chest. Others have a tiny pair of illustrated bee stings, fried eggs or milk jugs approximately where your nipples are (assuming they haven’t been removed in mastectomy).

Strangely, this sexualisation of breast cancer has even spread to GPs’ surgeries. The first time I made an appointment I was told by a male GP that he wasn’t allowed to examine me without a female chaperone. No one was available so I had to skulk out and make another appointment to see a female GP.

Breast cancer is sexy. Fun, even. I mean, it’s not, but it has become gendered and sexualised to the point that even a visit to the doc has you feeling like a flasher desperately trying to convince someone to look: “Oh go on, please, just cop a feel!”

To CoppaFeel’s credit (and I’m sure it deserves lots, really) its shower hangers also suggest men, “check your pecs!” Because for all the bra-flashing and pink that goes with Breast Cancer Awareness Month 390 men are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK.

They must feel terribly excluded. But then, so do I. The consultant I eventually saw reassured me that most people who end up in front of him don’t have cancer; he called my referral a “GP over-reaction”. It seems the shrivelled lemons have done the job; we’re all aware of breast cancer.

Months later I would beg the GP to refer me again urgently but she refused because a consultant had already said we’d over-reacted once. By which time I had a cancer that had spread to my lymph and has since spread to my bones and lungs (far less sexy cancers).

I can’t help feeling that the marketing spend urging us to go to the GP, quick, might be better used on funding routine mammograms for younger women, or cancer research, or the NHS, which experiences the pressure of an informed public but doesn’t always have the money for the drugs or treatment it needs.

But most of all I wish we would stop gendering, sexualising and arguably trivialising a form of cancer not all of us will beat.

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Interact: Responses to Breast cancer awareness? Ali Schofield isn’t feeling it

  • Natasha
    06 Feb 2018 20:02
    Oh Ali, your fine and laser like language has expressed the vaguest and most difficult of things ... why I feel SO uncomfortable about a lot of breast cancer charity stuff...maybe the problem is that word 'charity'...You also put into precise words my similarly vague worries about 'I can't imagine if...' and 'what if it were MY daughter' the nearest we get to empathy is a first degree relative. You nailed that one too. Thanks.
  • Victoria Yates
    08 Nov 2017 08:10
    I run a support network for younger women with Breast cancer, YBCN, and we ran an alternative October campaign #BreastCancerRealities. It was born out of similar views to those you’ve just expressed ie. it’s not a fluffy, pink disease!

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