Fear mongering: the use of fear to influence the opinions and actions of others towards some specific end. The feared object or subject is sometimes exaggerated. Fear mongering often involves repetition to reinforce the intended effects of this tactic. It is a key emotional dimension of the breast cancer brand.

While it is not the leading cause of death for women, breast cancer is a leading cause of fear. In his book Unnatural History: Breast Cancer and American Society Dr. Robert Aronowitz of the University of Pennsylvania explains why there is such a huge gap between social understandings of breast cancer and its biological effects: “Fear of breast cancer has too often been oversold.”

fearWomen are ten times more likely to die from heart disease than from breast cancer, and they are also more likely to die from cancers of the respiratory (71,550 per year) and digestive (59,810 per year) systems than they are from breast cancer (40,170 per year).

Yet widespread statistics seem to indicate that breast cancer is almost inevitable, and research studies that do not clearly explain what risk really means give the impression that almost anything and everything will contribute to the development of breast cancer.

Breast cancer advertisements use fear-mongering to garner support for the cause, sell products, impel some kind of behavior, and raise funds.

Example 1, Check Yourself before its too late

The mock advertisement for a Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) campaign found on Pinterest uses ominous coloring to bring attention to the potentially lethal danger of one’s breasts. The skeleton beneath the skin glows red against a corpse-like body. Since the image was posted on Pinterest it may not have run as an official print advertisement for BCRF. However, the message fits the general fear-mongering framework that is prevalent in pink ribbon culture.

It also sends an incorrect impression about the role of breast self exam in saving lives from breast cancer. Studies have found that Breast Self Exam (BSE) does not result in finding breast cancers early, nor does it decrease mortality due to breast cancer.

Similarly, the risk of breast cancer increases with age and average age at diagnosis is 61, so the woman in the advertisement does not represent the typical case. Five percent of breast cancer cases occur in women under age 40.

[See: Misinformation.]

“Sun Soy,” Self October (2002): 147.

Example 2, Reasons to Fight

Sun Soy, an occasional sponsor of Komen Race events, uses sporting imagery to advertise its organic, non-dairy soy milk. A 2002 advertisement during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month portrays a fit woman in a racing jersey looking down with a pensive expression.

A large number on her racing bib reads: “203,500.”

Small text surrounds the number: “Because this year alone there will be 203,500 more !$ reasons to fight breast cancer.”

The bib number, resembling a racing number, signifies the number of new breast cancer cases predicted for the current year.

The average reader may not know precisely that the AmericanCancer Society estimated 203,500 new cases of breast cancer in 2002, but it sounds right. The echo of such statistics across breast cancer representations grants authority to the statistic even as it reinforces fear and uncertainty about who these women will be.

Contrasting the image of a young, healthy, and vibrant woman with frightening statistics emphasizes the association of fear, for even she is vulnerable to “this terrible disease.”

Breast Cancer Research Foundation, “Nobody is Safe. Yet.” Self October (1994): 100.

Example 3, No body is safe

Another advertisement for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation uses a porous gray ribbon to denote the sinister nature of breast cancer.

The permeable aspect of the ribbon indicates vulnerability and ambiguity, while bold, large text reiterates the message that,

“Nobody is Safe. Yet.”

This attention-grabbing statement is a call for protection while it affirms the unknown future of breast cancer.

Accompanying statistics reveal the prevalence of breast cancer:

“One in nine women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime.”

Note: In 1994, “1 in 9” was the probability that a woman would be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. That statistic is now “1 in8.” Rather than a call to be afraid however, the increase in incidence suggests that something is contributing to the widespread increase in breast cancer in the population.

Rather than encouraging the reader to think about what may be causing widespread incidence of cancer, the advertisement uses fear to urge the reader to take a different kind of action:

“Join us in the fight against breast cancer.”

The fight against breast cancer has been parlayed into fundraising opportunities for people serious about stopping the epidemic as well as those who capitalize on the public’s fear of the disease.

Notably, proceeds from donations and net profits from purchases sometimes do go to breast cancer organizations or to notable cancer centers for research. But fear-mongering for the Cause also contributes to stress, increased medical and personal surveillance, and unnecessary procedures including biopsies, treatments, and prophylactic mastectomies, and diverts attention from other pressing health issues.

Additional Resource: “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things” by Barry Glassner (Basic Books, 2000).

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