Ben Ostrowsky//Flickr CC
Ben Ostrowsky//Flickr CC

October brings cozy sweaters, Pumpkin Spice Lattes, and lots of pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a worthy campaign: approximately 1 in 8 women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime. But how has breast cancer gained such visibility when others—even other forms of cancer—plague the population at even higher numbers?

Breast cancer awareness campaigns have branded breast cancer through pink ribbons and other merchandise, making the disease not only highly visible, but also a commodity. The signature pink color connects breast cancer to traditional ideas of femininity, beauty, and morality, and allows family and friends to show support.  Color aside, merchandise and freebies like cosmetics and small home appliances reinforce breast cancer’s symbolic ties to beautiful, domestic, heterosexual women as the primary sufferers. This is breast cancer’s “disease regime,” a system of institutional practices and styles of speech that shapes how patients experience it (Klawiter 2004, 851).  
Large-scale organizations like the Susan G. Komen foundation raise awareness, but often leave out marginalized identities that don’t fit a traditional feminine image. Groups like the Women & Cancer Walk provide spaces for those who don’t fit the mainstream definition of a “breast cancer patient.”
The specific image of the breast cancer patient affects who participates in activism and how they view their work for the cause. Many women volunteer for organizations like Komen as a way to connect with other survivors. Often this means that much of their work goes unnoticed, in part because they downplay their activism as trivial volunteering or “just being fair,” further reinforcing the gendered construction of the disease.

For more on breast cancer awareness, check out posts at Feminist Reflections, Sociological Images, and two of our recent Discoveries.