Pink may be pretty, but breast cancer certainly isn’t

Amy Wu says despite its good intentions, the breast cancer awareness month tends to downplay the horror and impact of the illness, dampening the urgency to improve prevention efforts and treatment

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 2:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 7:48pm

I am getting decked out in pink. I have the pink scarf with pink ribbon print, the pink T-shirt, and my toenails are freshly painted in bubble gum pink. I am a living and walking cause. Every October, or “Pinktober”, the breast cancer cause is transformed into an advertiser’s dream: pink pens, pink energy drinks, the universally recognised pink ribbon printed on milk cartons and yoghurt lids. There are invitations to pink ribbon parties and countless black-tie benefits.

We need less glitter, and more in-depth discussion on how funding is going towards research, prevention and a cure.

As a young breast cancer survivor – diagnosed and treated at 37 – I am all for awareness and advocacy. I feel incredibly grateful to be alive. Yet, at the same time, the fanfare overshadows the often depressing reality – that the disease continues to strip many women of their lives, including those under 40. I have mixed feelings about the month and a love-hate relationship with the pink ribbon.

The truth is that breast cancer continues to devastate the lives of many women and their loved ones. This year alone, some 246,660 women in the US will be newly diagnosed with breast cancer, and 40,450 women will die of the disease. As a member of several private online support groups, I often see epitaphs and death announcements. This is the reality.

The data is sobering. In Hong Kong, statistics show that breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women, and cases have tripled, from 1,152 in 1993 to 3,524 in 2013. On average, about nine women are diagnosed with the disease daily. In mainland China, breast cancer makes up 15 per cent of new cancers diagnosed in women there, according to a study on China by the American Cancer Society.

Hong Kong’s 15,000 cases of breast cancer complication made worse by lack of awareness

In less than two years, I’ve lost five young friends to the disease and I am tired of asking, “When will this end?” After mourning their loss, it left me with a greater fear of recurrence, and an immense frustration as to why more attention isn’t placed on research and cure. The cynic in me calls it “pinkwashing”.

Yes, it is a month where I can easily step forward and urge other young women to conduct self-examinations, get themselves checked, and stand on a soapbox and share my story openly and freely. Inevitably, every October, I become a pseudo celebrity. I receive calls to speak at a clothing store, to emcee a benefit, to run in a 5K, to enjoy a spa getaway, because I am a survivor and it is October.

With the advent of social media, there is a perception at times that the disease has been tamed. The filtered and carefully selected photos – even selfies posted by women undergoing treatment showing them bald, smiling and decked out in pink – at best tell half the story. But the untold part is pivotal because it will send out the message, to policymakers, health care providers, researchers and the advocacy organisations, that breast cancer awareness needs to be extended to all year round. We need less glitter, and more in-depth discussion on how funding is going towards research, prevention and a cure.

How one breast cancer survivor turned despair into determination to help other Hong Kong women

Ultimately, Pinktober is a façade to the immense frustration and fears that the disease brings, not to mention the financial impact. The true face of breast cancer, or any kind of cancer, is stark.

Thankfully, there are a small but growing number of women who refuse to be “pinkwashed”. Some fellow survivors have shared pictures of themselves post radiation or mastectomy. One online post read, “What they don’t tell you about breast cancer during awareness month. This is after 25 radiation treatments. I was burnt to a crisp and still had eight more to go. By the last treatment, my skin started to peel.”

It is raw but it is the reality. Here’s another post from a fellow survivor, a wife and mother. “I am over being strong and positive ... Here is my breast cancer awareness post: I am 32 years old and have been living in f*&^g hell for three years! My body has been sliced open more than I would like, non-stop chemo treatments every 21 days ... This s&^% disease can come at your body like an earth-shattering tornado and rip you right away from everything you ever loved or cared about! So that’s where I am at tonight! I am exhausted and sad and mad as hell that this happened to me! So f%*& pink, f%$# breast cancer and f*&^ exhaustion! I am over it! I need a cure like tomorrow!”

Ditto is all I want to say as I await the end to the month.

Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator