Is there anyone who isn’t aware of breast cancer?
Since 1985, cancer-related nonprofits, along with pharmaceutical firms and other businesses, have sponsored an international campaign to observe October as “Breast Cancer Awareness Month.” During these weeks, the public is bombarded with awareness and education messaging featuring the campaign’s symbol, a pink ribbon.
A wave of pink products typically appears, too, including clothing – think about the “Save the Ta-Tas” shirts – as well as events like marches and walkathons. This onslaught has led some to term the campaign “Pinktober.”
These efforts often focus on encouraging women to get screened with mammograms to increase the possibility that the cancer will be detected early. Breast cancer patients are celebrated for “beating” cancer, “winning” the battle, having survived and being cured. But these messages overlook the experiences of millions of breast cancer patients.
I am a sociology professor who specializes in studying gender as well as how having a serious illness affects identity. These themes also hit close to home for me: In 2009, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer – also referred to as stage 4 on a scale from 0 to 4 – which means a cancer that has spread beyond the breasts to other parts of the body. Since that time, I have participated in face-to-face and online support groups, joined retreats and met myriad health professionals who specialize in oncology while also continuing my research.
In 2019, I began a nationwide study to examine the experiences of women with stage 4 breast cancer. The first of my papers on religion’s role in coping with metastatic breast cancer was recently published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. I am now working on research that examines metastatic breast cancer and a range of spiritual experiences.
The seriousness of metastatic breast cancer, which is the only breast cancer that kills, is rarely discussed. This leaves people with this diagnosis feeling ignored and angry – and largely invisible to most of the organizations focused on breast cancer.
A need for inclusion
To find participants with stage 4 breast cancer for my survey, in 2019 I sent out requests through online support groups, cancer organizations and societies, and word of mouth. Ultimately 310 women completed a questionnaire about their experiences with metastatic breast cancer, such as perceived support, feelings about breast cancer organizations and the pink ribbon, and ways of coping.
I selected 33 of those women to participate in in-depth interviews to provide additional information about some of their survey answers.