Friday, November 27, 2020

Column: Pink ribbons will not save my aunt's life

Metastatic breast cancer is the deadliest form of breast cancer, yet receives little funding, year after year.

October 19, 2020

Nearly all people who die from breast cancer will die from metastatic breast cancer, or breast cancer that has spread to another part of the body. Despite this, only two to five percent of the breast cancer research funding goes towards metastatic, or stage IV breast cancer research, according to Metavivor. My aunt is one of those living with metastatic breast cancer. Ribbons will not save her life, but research might.

I still remember when I found out my Aunt Johnna had cancer. I was 13 years old, sitting in the passenger seat of my mom’s car on the way home after volleyball practice. She told me that Aunt Johnna was sick, but she did not know much more than that. 

I grew up in a small town. The stereotypical one-stoplight town in the middle of nowhere, where everyone knows everyone. Life moves slower in small towns, and everyone lives by the idea that nothing bad could happen to us.

Up until that day, I did not really know what it meant to have cancer. I was too young before then to grasp what living with a disease truly entailed. I had thousands of questions rushing through my head, while simultaneously not knowing a single thing to ask. 

The overwhelming thought though was ‘Is she going to be okay? She has to be okay.’ We would soon find out that, statistically, she would not be okay. Her cancer had metastasized, and we were grappling with the fact that her cancer was stage IV, and terminal.

I could never grasp the concept that my aunt, who was barely over 30 years old at the time of her diagnosis, with three young kids, would die from stage IV breast cancer. In many ways, I still can’t.

According to Metavivor, every year, six to ten percent of the 200,000 Americans diagnosed with breast cancer are diagnosed at stage IV. But another 30 percent of these breast cancer patients will see their cancer metastasize and progress to stage IV.

Every October, as pink floods the country for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, there are thousands of people living with metastatic breast cancer who are far past the need for awareness and are literally dying for a cure. 

Brands turn pink for the month and pledge to fund breast cancer awareness efforts with a portion of their profits, as they stand on the backs of survivors.

This “pinkwashing” that occurs in October has led to many brands using breast cancer as a means for profit. As brands intend to raise money for breast cancer awareness, many of those living with breast cancer are past awareness and want tangible action instead.

Pink socks, candles and shirts will not help fund the research for a cure that may save my aunt’s life. Instead, it funds this elusive “awareness,” which has been receiving a majority of the funding for many years now. No one is more aware of breast cancer than someone who is living with it.

This awareness, which is often times used to describe early detection and screening initiatives, according to the New York Times has garnered most of the funding that comes from breast cancer awareness month. While early detection initiatives are important and needed, they have long been held as much more important than finding a cure for the deadliest part of breast cancer, when looking at the research funding statistics.

Every year since my aunt’s diagnosis majority of the funding continues to go towards everything but the deadliest aspect of breast cancer. But, for many who don’t know the darkest parts of breast cancer, they see that country is painted pink every October, so they assume that everything must be okay. 

Surely with all the pink around, there must be funding going towards finding a cure. While there is some money going towards finding a cure, it can never be enough. We buy pink shirts and mugs and pins all in hopes that we are doing our part, but in reality, we could be doing so much more for those who need it most.

My aunt could be considered one of the lucky ones. After diagnoses, people with metastatic breast cancer live an average of 18 to 36 months, according to Metavivor. But how lucky is she really? She will be in treatment for the rest of her life. She sits in a University of Michigan cancer treatment center for hours once every few weeks, being injected with drugs that will never cure her. 

She endures surgeries and side effects all while attending sporting events, graduations and other life events. She rarely missed my basketball games in high school and we still make it to my brother’s football games every Friday. Her oldest child graduates this spring while her youngest has yet to reach middle school. There are still many sporting and life events to come.

It has been just over seven years since my aunt’s diagnosis. We’ve done the pink thing, and still do the pink thing on rare occasions if we know that the money is funding research, and not more ribbons. But, I caution you, as pink spreads throughout the country in the name of awareness, make sure you know where your money is really going when you consider buying this month’s newest pink item. Ask who the money is benefitting, and what organizations are really profiting off pink merchandise. 

In other words, think before you pink, because ribbons will not save my aunt’s life.


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