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Are you actually fighting cancer?

Michelle Avenant's picture

I have seen some very interesting breast cancer “awareness” campaigns in my time on social networks.

The first I can recall was a secretive breast cancer awareness “game”, calling women to post the colour of their bra as a facebook status and inbox all the women (only women!) on their friends list, telling them to do the same. Without context or explanation, all these random, perplexing colour statuses were somehow supposed to raise awareness about breast cancer. Spoiler alert: they didn’t.

These “games” became a yearly trend, with subsequent rounds including posting “I like it…(insert location of handbag)” and posting the name of a fruit corresponding, via secret code, to one’s relationship status.

In March, my newsfeed was flooded with the #nomakeupselfie, the majority of which included no mention of breast cancer.

The latest breast cancer “awareness” fad to appear on social networks is far less cryptic, but just as unhelpful: changing one’s avatar or profile picture to a picture of one’s cleavage.

Now, let’s get one thing straight (because clearly this is not as obvious to many of us as it should be): breast cancer is not a game.

Breast cancer is a disease that claims hundreds of thousands of lives every year, and radically alters many more. There is a need for more research about the disease and more support – financial, structural, and cultural - for those who suffer with it. And whilst breast cancer garners a lot of media attention compared to many other forms of cancer, much of this attention spreads little real awareness or support and a lot of unhelpful gender norms, stereotypes about women and objectification of women’s bodies.

Structuring breast cancer campaigns around reductionist tropes of “womanliness” – bra colours, handbags, makeup, cleavage – can alienate not only male or child sufferers of the disease, but people with breast cancer who are agender, genderqueer or transgender, as well as cisgender women whose gender expression does not look like this. What about people who don’t wear bras or makeup, take selfies, carry handbags or have cleavage?

Terribly often, breast cancer campaigns function according to a patriarchal logic of “breasts, therefore women, therefore frivolous aesthetically-oriented things” that is not only disrespectful towards women, but turns the reality of breast cancer into an trivial object, like a selfie or a bra colour.

Furthermore, the objectification of women’s breasts in slogans like "Save Second Base" and the avatar cleavage fad tacitly suggests that it is more important to save breasts than lives, and can be cruelly shaming of survivors who have lost one or both breasts to the disease.

In short, the majority of online breast cancer campaigns are not accomplishing what they should be.

Here is what we need from breast cancer awareness campaigns, and what you, as a social media user, can do to address this need:

1. Awareness. Simply reminding people that breast cancer exists does not count.
Before posting, ask yourself: “does this post actually teach people anything about breast cancer?” If not, find some useful information online and include it in your post.

2. Consciousness, not simply of the disease, but of the people who live with it, its effect on their lives and how to be considerate towards these people in the way we talk about and behave towards them.
Before posting, ask yourself: “Am I posting this for breast cancer patients, or am I posting this for me?"

3. Solidarity for those who do or have suffered with breast cancer.
Before posting, ask yourself: “Would this make a cancer patient or survivor feel loved and supported, or shamed and avoided?”

4. Funding. Cancer treatments are developed through medical research, the need for which, at this point, is never-ending.
Think about donating money, even if it’s a small amount. Alternately, donate blood if you can. Cancer patients often need blood transfusions, and these rely on individual contributions to the country’s blood supply, including yours.