What do you know about breast cancer? Know about the various breast cancer campaigns held to spread awareness.

Breast cancer awareness campaigns that educated women worldwide

Breast cancer ranks as the most common form of cancer among Indian women, with data reports from the national cancer registries indicating a rate of 26 cases for every 1,00,000 women, and a mortality rate of 13. On both counts, this rate is considered high.

In case you think it’s the vast rural populace in India that is skewing the data, you could not be more wrong. Topping the national incidence of cancer are three of India’s wealthiest urban centres, starting with Delhi (41 per 1,00,000), followed by Chennai (37.9), and Bangalore (34.4).

Moreover, younger women were found to be at major risk, and breast cancer projections for India are as high as 18 lakh by 2020. The silver lining, according to the Maryland, US-based National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), is that “Indian women are less likely to develop breast cancer as compared to their western counterparts.” 

The downside, NCBI says, is that there’s a general lack of awareness. As a result, participation in screening programmes in India – “if they do exist” – is almost non-existent.

Importance of awareness campaigns

In this scenario, initiatives to spread awareness campaigns assume utmost importance; it’s needed for the same reason that awareness about lung cancer, AIDS, or diabetes is important: without it, we won’t know what symptoms to look for. A study carried out in the US in February 1990 showed mammography went up on account of such awareness programmes.

Equally importantly, without awareness it is difficult to drum up support for research, or raise finances for more screening programmes and treatment facilities in the country – or, for that matter, even policy announcements. In the US, sustained campaigning and enhanced awareness led to post-mastectomy breast reconstruction being brought under insurance coverage by law in 1998.

As of now, the knowledge we have about the causes of breast cancer is insufficient, which makes early detection critical; this is possible only if we know what the symptoms are. If detected early, the correct diagnosis made, and adequate treatment facilities availed of, there is a good chance of treating breast cancer. If detected late, curative treatment is often no longer an option.

And this is true for across the globe; breast cancer remains the single most common disease among women, not only in developing countries such as India but also in the developed world. In the US, for instance, one in eight women (about 12.4%) is expected to develop invasive breast cancer. This despite the fact that awareness programmes for three decades in the US have encouraged routine self-breast exams and annual mammograms.

Awareness month: Genesis

It was in the US that the global practice of observing October as the Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) was born – some 33 years ago. Locally known as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM), its early mission was to educate and empower women to “take charge of their breast health”.

The primary force behind the campaign gaining momentum was US First Lady Betty Ford, who underwent mastectomy in August 1974, a few weeks after her husband was inaugurated the President of the United States. On recovery, she helped kick off the first week-long awareness programme with a televised appeal. Soon, the campaign evolved into a year-long series of activities culminating in October.

NBCAM too was founded in the month of October – in 1985 – as a partnership between the American Cancer Society and Imperial Chemical’s pharma division, which has since been acquired by AstraZeneca, manufacturer of breast cancer drugs.

The movement got a further fillip in 1993 when President Clinton earmarked the third Friday in October as ‘National Mammography Day’, and advised companies and clinics to offer free or discounted screening on that day. 

Campaigns during the awareness month involve the creation and distribution of promotional materials, brochures, advertisements, public service spots, and other educational aids. In addition, exposure comes through word of mouth, initiatives at the workplace, the community, and even clinics, apart from political representatives.

Global awareness campaigns 

Around the world, October is marked by a variety of events to spread breast cancer awareness. This includes walks and runs; and some prominent buildings such as presidential and prime ministerial residences are illuminated in pink: the Palácio do Planalto, the official workplace of the Brazilian President, was lit up on October 1, 2014; 10 Downing Street on October 25, 2011, and the White House through October 2017.

Some of the more notable programmes are listed below:

  • Worldwide Breast Cancer, a global health charity, organises an innovative campaign called ‘Know Your Lemons’, using the fruit as an educational tool to spread awareness of breast cancer symptoms and detection in more than 70 countries. It was made available in 23 languages including Gujarati. The campaign reached out to more than 200 million people in 2017 alone, cleverly using an image of 12 lemons to represent the signs of breast cancer, which made it easy for everyone to visualise the symptoms.
  • Breast Cancer Now, the UK’s largest breast cancer research charity, has a fundraising event called ‘Wear it Pink Day’, with the charity asking people across the UK to dress in pink at work, school, or to social events in their communities. It also seeks donations and raises money through cake sales, raffles, pink fancy dress competitions etc. Its advice: ‘Whatever you do, do it in pink and do it for a price!’
  • One of the most well-known breast cancer awareness programmes in the US, ‘Walk for the Cure’, is a three-day event organised by the country’s largest breast cancer charity, Susan G Komen, often referred to as simply Komen. It recently introduced high-tech RFID (radio frequency identification) chips to affix to the shoes of participants; the chips works like a Bluetooth device loaded with wishes from family and friends, helping participants finish the three-day walk with a smile.
  • Whenever South Africa hosts a key cricket series (for instance, if the Indians visit), its cricket board organises a one one-day international at the Wanderers, which is known as the ‘Pink ODI’; one of the biggest sporting events in the country. The South African team takes the field in pink uniforms, and spectators too are encouraged to come dressed in pink. The aim of the Pink ODI is to collect money for the breast cancer clinic in Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital; the last Pink ODI against India on 10th February 2018 raised more than 1 million Rand (R1 equals about Rs 5). The hashtag #PitchUpInPink is used to get people into the spirit of the occasion.
  • In India, beauty care brand Avon cut through a clutch of breast awareness campaigns, capturing 15% share of voice (SOV) amongst all the breast cancer awareness conversations, through its campaign called ‘Pay Attention’. As part of the campaign, it went digital to engage people in conversations on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The company also collaborated with social media influencers to help spread the word further.

Campaign criticism

Awareness campaigns as a body have been criticized by many on grounds that the movement has been usurped by those who have a financial interest in the disease; for instance, AstraZeneca, the $22-billion British chemicals giant that manufactures breast cancer treatment drugs and also has a financial stake in breast cancer clinics.

Breast Cancer Consortium, an international working group focused on critical health literacy and breast cancer, says NBCAM itself has become “a marketing platform and pink ribbon shop”. Moreover, it believes marketing promotions feed on fear-mongering, and become “so ubiquitous in the pink ribbon marketplace” that it’s difficult to know which ones have merit. 

Texas naturopath Loretta Lanphier calls it a ‘pink fraud’, saying all these corporations, in one way or another, have a vested financial interest focused on the profitable businesses of cancer detection and treatment, rather than promoting and advancing non-toxic prevention.

Sydney Ross Singer, breast cancer researcher and author of the book Dressed To Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras, says the apparel industry and the organised medical industry made every effort to sink his book, to the extent that a scheduled programme about him on NBC was cancelled, as the broadcaster was ‘owned by GE’, and ‘GE is a manufacturer of mammography machines’.