An Awareness Umbrella? Breaking the Awareness Habit for Something More Meaningful

The Ad for the pink and white awareness umbrella reads:

“A beautifully constructed umbrella is appreciated rain or shine! Recipients will know you care when you pick gifts that show you’re there! Umbrella comes in clear vinyl sleeve. Awareness Pink Ribbon Design.”

Awareness. We see and hear that word a lot, especially when it comes to the cause of breast cancer. The pink ribbon signifies awareness. People want to raise awareness. Products and services claim to spread awareness. But what exactly does this commonly used word mean, and what does it mean in relation to breast cancer?

By definition, awareness refers to consciousness, conscious knowledge or mindfulness. We become knowledgeable by paying attention and being alert. The closer we look at something, the greater potential for deepening our knowledge and becoming more aware.

How many pink ribbons came across your field of vision today? Did you notice the pink and white umbrella, the billboard, the t-shirt, the address labels, the pizza box, the news story?

Many of the people I’ve talked to about the plethora of pink have told me that they never really noticed how much pink was floating around in public space. Of those who did notice, many of them didn’t think about it. Some ignored it. Some assumed it was a good thing to do on occasion. Some actively purchased pink ribbon products assuming that the money was helping to fund a cure. Some hated it.

But for the most part, very few people read the fine print, researched the organizations and programs being funded, learned whether any of the money supported research, examined the practices of the sponsoring companies, considered whether there might be a conflict of interest in certain cause marketing relationships, or wondered how the diagnosed might feel about doing their grocery shopping while being bombarded with pink ribbon balloons.

And why would they think about it? It would take considerable time and effort to discern whether pink consumption was serving the greater cause of breast cancer (aimed at eradication) while serving the diagnosed in the best way possible.

The pink ribbon symbol was successful in increasing the visibility of breast cancer as a women’s health issue. At one point this recognition carried with it a substantial amount of functional awareness about the rise of the epidemic, the need for targeted research, the importance of informed medical decision-making, and the value of sharing information and experiences with other diagnosed people. The ribbon encouraged deeper inquiry into these issues.

Today the pink ribbon is about advertising, and awareness is lost in a flurry of pink. What is missing is deeper knowledge about probabilities and risks, environmental links to cancer, the over-promise of medical technology, scientific controversies, health disparities, financial incentives of the cancer industry, the realities of people’s lives during and after treatment, and the marginalization of diagnosed women and men who do not fit neatly into the triumphant survivor story.

In the broader scheme of things, the pink ribbon no longer inspires conscious knowledge. It has become a habit.

To be aware of breast cancer, we must break the habit. To do so, we must look more closely at the pink ribbon culture and its effects. We must consider thoughtfully what serves the greater cause of breast cancer and humanity, and what does not? Breaking the habit may or may not be the end of ribbons (and that’s okay in my opinion). But breaking the habit will increase awareness of breast cancer, including how it relates to broader health and social concerns. Pink ribbon culture needs a new mantra. I propose this one:

“Keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away.” – Dinah Craik, A Life for a Life, 1859

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2 comments to Awareness Umbrella

"women urged to get screened because it might save their lives. But that’s only 1 possible outcome, and it’s the least likely one" @cragcrest

“Pink Ribbon Blues”

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