The young mom coos at her six-month-old child as she reaches to rub noses with her baby girl. The child releases a gleeful sound of delight. The love between the two wafts across the room. I inhale deeply. Then remember where I am.
This isn’t just any room.
This is the breast cancer waiting room.
This woman is fighting for her life.
Both the woman and her baby are almost bald. The mom lost all her hair. The baby has yet to grow hers. The surgeries and chemotherapy have taken an incalculable toll on this momma, yet the woman is here to fight for the chance grasp her baby girl one more day.
These kinds of scenes surround me. Women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s—and even some men (one out of 100 breast cancers occurs in men) fighting for their lives. Their children. Their futures.
I see these women every time I return to my doctors’ offices. I don’t know how many dozens, even hundreds, of moms and dads and babies and toddlers I’ve seen in the waiting room over the last few years.
All too often I have to look away to hide my tears.
My oncologist, whom I call The Queen, warned me that October would be the hardest month of the year. It is for all her patients.
You may be wondering why.
The pink ribbon reminds us of the pain. The suffering. The losses. The trauma. The horror. The unspeakable.
Like Fourth of July fireworks to a veteran returning from war, some women find the pink ribbon is a trigger to their PTSD or memories of unspeakable pain and horror.
People like to glom onto phrases like the “great improvements in treatment” and all those “medical advances.”
And there are some. Just far too few. People like that sweet momma I described are dying every day. In fact, hospitals are seeing an uptick in the cases of breast cancer among women in their teens, 20s and 30s.
No one knows why. Theories abound, but as of yet, there’s no real explanation.
But if you knew what some of us know. If you’d seen what some of us have seen. If you’d been tortured alive like some of us have been tortured, you’d wince, too.
October is breast cancer awareness month. This is the time of year our nation will glow in pink.
Six billion dollars, yes $6,000,000,000.00 will be raised this year in the name of breast cancer.
But how much of that is going to research? Pennies on the dollar.
An enormous amount goes to “awareness.” This is where it becomes blurry fast. Because if you’re going to remind folks to get a mammogram why not put your huge logo and pink ribbon on the billboard. This can be called “awareness” but most of us would just call it “marketing.” In addition, millions are spent to defend the trademark of the pink ribbon logo and “for a cure”.
We’re grateful for the awareness. Women and men need to get checked if they notice anything suspicious no matter what their age. Affordable testing needs to be made available. Early detection is everything.
But the dirty secret of the pink ribbon is just how little money goes to research.
The largest pink crusading company only donates .16 of every dollar to research. “Despite the fact that Komen trademarked the phrase ‘for the cure,’ only 16 percent of the $472 million raised in 2011, the most recent year for which financial reports are available, went toward research,” according to The New York Times.
Sixteen cents won’t buy a cure. Sixteen cents hasn’t been buying a cure.
As an article from Marie-Claire notes:
“Yet what many in the breast cancer community are loathe to admit, despite all these lifesaving developments, is that, in fact, we are really no closer to a cure today than we were two decades ago.
In 1991, 119 women in the U.S. died of breast cancer every day. Today, that figure is 110 — a victory no one is bragging about. Breast cancer remains the leading cancer killer among women ages 20 to 59; more than 1.4 million new cases are diagnosed annually worldwide. Roughly 5 percent, or 70,000, breast cancer patients are diagnosed at a late stage, after the cancer has metastasized — that rate hasn’t budged since 1975, despite all the medical advances and awareness campaigns.”
I have too many friends whose lives are on the line right now.
They need the whole dollar going to research.
That momma I described. She needs the whole dollar going to research. My friends whose lives are in the balance need the whole dollar going to research. I need the whole dollar going to research. We all do. Why? Only research will save lives. Many of the advancements in breast cancer research are spilling over to other kinds of cancer. And the research breakthroughs we have in the United States will impact cancer care around the world.
We appreciate the ways these large organizations are raising “awareness”, but we they must do better, we must do better to fight for scientific breakthroughs to save lives.
Here are four ways you can make a real difference in the fight against breast cancer this month:
1. Give directly to researcher.
Most of the large breast cancer organizations have heavy overhead and spend far more on awareness than on research. Only research will find a cure. Cut out the middleman in your financial giving and give directly to researchers. Allow 100% of every dollar to go to the researchers. Here are three to consider:
- Cufund.org and click on “Give Now” on top of the page. Write the name of the fund: Young Women’s Breast Cancer. This directly supports the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Translational Program, founded by Dr. Virginia Borges, which is committed to identifying the cause for increased risk of death for young woman with breast cancer.
- Dana Farber: Direct your gift to support the breast cancer research fund.
- Mayo Clinic. Direct your gift toward cancer research.
2. Engage in an alternative breast cancer walk.
The walks, runs, and races offer a prime opportunity for women and families impacted by breast cancer to connect. The Avon Walk for Breast Cancer requires participants to raise a minimum of $1800 per person. Again, only a small percentage goes to research. Check out their low rating on Charity Navigator. If that’s what you want to do—go for it. But consider the following options:
- Organize a walk, getaway, or retreat with friends. Give the funds that would have been raised to a person you know battling cancer to help pay down their medical bills. Even with insurance, the bills are mindboggling. Most people in a significant battle with cancer will hit maximum out of pocket for at least the next five years. Many will hit the ceiling of coverage in certain areas leaving them with the option to pay anyway or go without treatment. I know people still paying off the medical bills of the spouse they lost 10 years ago.
- Organize an outdoor excursion like a hike, bike ride, or swim meet, as a fundraiser for a specific researcher who focuses on the specific type of cancer your friend battles.
3. Look for local, grassroots opportunities to give.
Sometimes the most effective giving opportunities are by local, passionate people who have done their research and want to be sure their efforts are making a tangible difference. These local organizations are often volunteer led and don’t bear the heavy overhead costs. One of my friends, Carol, works with a local cancer walk every year. Everything is volunteer based. All—100%—of the proceeds go to cancer research. These smaller efforts can make a huge difference.
My hunch is that somewhere in your town you’ll find a low-overhead, non-profit to help those battling cancer. They may be providing housing, childcare, help with medical bills, or more. Seek them out. Volunteer your time, energy, and resources to these kinds of organizations where all of the money is making a direct impact.
Before you buy pink, use Charitynavigator.com to look up the charity you’re considering supporting. Their rankings just may surprise you!
4. Appeal to your state politicians for more funding.
The money raised during October and given to research is chump change compared to what the National Institute of Health can provide in grants for research. The War on Cancer was launched by the National Cancer Act of 1971. The Department of Defense contributes to cancer research. But the amount of federal funds going to clinical trials is dropping. Send an email to your state senator and representative and let them know you want to see more federal funding for research.
You can reach out to them and ask them to increase government spending for cancer research through the National Institute of Health here: Contact the Congress.
5. Triple check who you’re giving to.
In May, the FTC accused four cancer charities of fraud—the Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services, Children’s Cancer of America, and the Breast Cancer Society—for spending almost $187 million in donations on dating website subscriptions and luxury vacations. Only 3 cents of every dollar went to cancer patients. So do a little reading before you make that donation.
The Queen says that over time October will get easier. I suspect she’s right—especially if every October means we move closer to a cure.