Campaign against breast cancer goes beyond displaying a pink ribbon

Amy Wu says while feel-good awareness campaigns play a role, advocates must also focus on the many women suffering from the disease and press harder for a cure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 October, 2015, 10:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 October, 2015, 10:30am

As breast cancer awareness month kicks off with the usual media blitz and mountain of pink-ribbon fundraisers, it is easy to lose track of the real mission. All too often, breast cancer advocacy is overshadowed by politics and the occasional celebrity associated with the disease - actresses Shannen Doherty and Angelina Jolie are examples. Many women around the world are living with breast cancer, and we should be focusing on why, despite the billions of dollars raised for research, we are nowhere near a cure.

READ MORE: Six ways Hongkongers can support October's breast cancer awareness month

The statistics remain stark. One in every eight women in America will be diagnosed with breast cancer sometime in her lifetime. In Hong Kong, it has been the most common cancer affecting women since 1993, and the average age of diagnosis is 54 compared to 61 in the US, according to the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation.

This month, it is the names and faces of the friends I've lost that I will be thinking about the most

On the positive side, breast cancer receives among the highest amount of research funding compared with other diseases. On the flip side, it's easy to lose track of the reality among the fanfare.

Over the past year, I've lost four friends to breast cancer. As a member of the young cancer survivors' group in Washington DC, I have befriended numerous young people - many in their thirties - who have been dealt the same challenge as myself.

In May 2013, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 37 and was successfully treated. I was lucky; the cancer was caught early and I had excellent medical care. The realisation that life is short ignited my passion to give back.

I learned fast that there are thousands of breast cancer organisations and groups. When I reached out to them, I would tell each that "I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I just wanted to give back".

I was overwhelmed and excited by the opportunities to make a difference. I joined 5K walks and runs; I became a young advocate with non-profit groups such as Living Beyond Breast Cancer and Young Survival Coalition; I ran the social media campaigns behind the National Asian Breast Cancer Initiative; I had the thrill of being showered in pink ribbons at the Susan G. Komen's annual Race for the Cure. I attended conferences, shared my story and made speeches. Last January, in an effort to support the cause, I went on the Breast Cancer Thrivers Cruise.

READ MORE: Hong Kong considering whether to roll out breast cancer screening scheme

I've been fortunate to work with some excellent women who genuinely want to make a difference. But, all too often, I found that the cause was stymied by politics, and perhaps a cattiness that comes with a cause that is led by women. Advocacy groups were often territorial and seemed reluctant to join forces.

Once, before applying to join a programme that trains young advocates, I was grilled by a fellow survivor who asked me how much advocacy work I had done. When I told her, she said I needed more experience to be considered. It was as if I were applying for a job rather than simply wanting to get involved.

Unfortunately, there is far less talk about how to help underprivileged women with no health insurance, how to assist single women without significant others or family, and about raising more money to purchase, for example, 3D mammogram machines so more women can be screened.

Rather, the focus is on pink-ribbon campaigns. Yes, the focus on survivorship is positive and wonderful. But let's not forget the reality of the cause: every day, in online support groups on social networks, there are posts about women who have succumbed to the disease.

This month, it is the names and faces of the friends I've lost that I will be thinking about the most. I am furious at the disease for taking the lives of my friends. Breast cancer affects women in so many ways - their professional and personal lives, their finances, their emotions and psyche.

Behind the happy and hopeful façade of the pink ribbon, and the strength of advocacy groups and awareness, we must not forget the women who live with the reality every day, and we must think "cure".

Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator