BCAM's roots and history
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During this month, independent cancer-related and public health organisations and charities join their efforts in an annual campaign to raise awareness of the disease. The main goal of this initiative is to appeal for people to get checked for breast cancer, share awareness amongst their peers, contribute with funds to help advance breast cancer research and provide support to those diagnosed.
It is common in October to come across a pink ribbon. While many people know that it is associated with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, few know the history behind it. The campaign started in October of 1985 in the United States, at the time called National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM). It began as a partnership between the American Cancer Society and the Imperial Chemical Industries Pharmaceuticals to promote mammograms. Since then, campaigns to increase awareness, promote methods of prevention and educate on the early detection of cancer have spread worldwide. [1]
The history of the ribbons dates back to 1979, when the wife of a man who had been taken hostage in Iran tied yellow ribbons to a tree as symbols of faith and hope of seeing her husband returning home safely. Later, AIDS activists, also inspired by yellow ribbons, displayed red ribbons to represent those impacted by AIDS. Since then, ribbons have become important to several causes. In California, 68-year-old Charlotte Haley started the pink ribbon movement from her living room. Her sister, daughter, and granddaughter were all diagnosed with breast cancer, and Haley began making peach-coloured ribbons and handing them out alongside cards at her local supermarket. In these cards, Charlotte called for public and governmental attention to breast cancer, pointing out National Cancer Institute's budget to be $1.8 billion, with only 5% going for cancer prevention. While Charlotte managed to distribute thousands of cards and ribbons, it wasn't until 1992 that the ribbon changed to the pink colour and became known worldwide. [2]
Alexandra Penney, editor of Self magazine, sought to work with Charlotte on an issue about National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which Charlotte refused, as the approach was too commercial. As such, for legal purposes, and not being allowed to use Charlotte's peach-coloured ribbon, Self magazine adapted the ribbon to the colour pink. From then on, the pink ribbon was internationalised and widely recognised as a symbol of breast cancer awareness. [3]
Importance of BCAM
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women around the world. However, it is essential to notice that while breast cancer is commonly mistakenly advertised as a disease that only affects women, it can affect anyone. Breast cancer is the most diagnosed type of cancer globally, accounting for 1 in 8 diagnoses of cancer. In 2020, there were 2.3 million new diagnoses of breast cancer and around 685,000 deaths worldwide, with mortality rates higher amongst young BIPOC and non-binary people. This number is estimated to increase between 40 and 50% by 2040. [4]
While the causes of breast cancer are not fully clear, there are risk factors that can contribute to the likelihood of developing this type of cancer, which include age (it is most common in women over 50 years old), family history of breast or ovarian cancer, a previous cancer diagnosis or breast lumps or dense breast tissue, for example. It has also been recently studied that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and exposure to oestrogen can increase the risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal cis women and transgender women receiving hormone treatment. [5][6]
However, it is once again crucial to note that cancer is not limited to risk factors, at the same time as having one or more of these does not necessarily mean someone will get breast cancer. BCAM is then important in calling people to be aware of the risk factors, the importance of screening and identifying possible breast cancer cells. And because cancer doesn't choose age, remember that you are never too young to be diagnosed. For instance, the Young Breast Cancer Project found that 62% of young breast cancer survivors felt they were not educated on breast health prior to their diagnosis. Additionally, they also concluded that the average adolescent or young adult breast cancer patient is diagnosed at a higher stage, presenting a higher mortality rate compared to older patients. This can happen both due to the lack of education about breast health and medical providers' failure to order mammograms and biopsies after evaluation.
Touch, Screen, Identify: diagnosis of breast cancer
The most common question is: what can we do to help with an early diagnosis? The answer involves the three steps mentioned above: touch, screen and identify. It is recommended that individuals perform a breast self-exam regularly. This can be done anywhere without the need to go to a hospital and involves visually and physically inspecting your breasts. Visually, you can look for changes in your breasts' shape, colour or size. Physically, it is possible to, through touch, look out for lumps, thickening, or any changes from previous breast examinations. [7]
Some common symptoms in the early stages of breast cancer that have been reported were lumps, changes in the size of the breasts, nipple discharge, change in texture, dimpling of the skin or inverted nipples. [8] If changes are found to the breasts, the individual should see a healthcare provider, who can recommend a mammogram, a breast ultrasound and a breast biopsy.
Finally, if you have the means to, you can support cancer research, always being mindful of potential 'pinkwashing' and false campaigns around the cause. Make sure you double-check where your money is going, as brands and companies see awareness months as marketing opportunities for campaigns that allegedly, with the product's sales, would fund (in this case) cancer research. Unfortunately, what often happens is that no money is donated to these causes, or there is not enough transparency on how much is donated.
If you have been diagnosed, there are groups and useful websites and groups you can refer to. Check for local or national groups in your country or location. And don't forget to check your breasts regularly!