5 Actions To Take This Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October is all about supporting patients and survivors.

It’s October, which means it’s time for pumpkin spice, prepping for Zoom Halloween, and Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Between COVID-19 and the election, there’s a risk that breast cancer might not be at the forefront of your priorities — but there are many ways to make a difference for breast cancer this week, whether it’s signing a petition, donating to an organization supporting patients, or volunteering virtually. You can also learn about pinkwashing, or when organizations sell pink merch for awareness (without being transparent about how they support breast cancer research), or talk to your family about your risk of the disease.

There’s a lot going on right now, but this may be a particularly crucial year for breast cancer cases. A study published in August in The Lancet Oncology found that scientists expect a "significant" increase in avoidable cancer-related deaths this year, including from breast cancer, because of the pandemic. "Cancer screening has been suspended, routine diagnostic work deferred, and only urgent symptomatic cases prioritised [sic] for diagnostic intervention," the study says. Those diagnostic delays will cost lives, and it’s more important than ever to make sure that people pay attention to their breast health.

Here’s how to use your time and money to help breast cancer this week.

Federal funding for breast cancer research is crucial for continuing to fight for a cure, and the Cancer Action Network has a form to send to Congress to ask for continued bipartisan support for breast cancer. The letter asks for at least $41.6 billion for the National Institutes of Health and at least $6.5 billion for the National Cancer Institute. You can also sign a petition asking for your state Senator to pledge more funding, or contact or call your Congress representative yourself to tell them how important breast cancer research is to you.

Breast cancer awareness month is a popular time to buy products in support of breast cancer research, but not all fundraisers do the same amount of good. Pinkwashing, where merchandise is branded for breast cancer but doesn’t actually do much good for research or survivors, can be a huge problem this time of year. As Vox points out, survivors have said that it exploits their stories for profits that can be difficult to track, and medical experts say it can raise "awareness" without also educating people on signs of the illness. Breast Cancer Action, a grassroots women’s health advocacy organization, notes that some companies even market products for breast cancer awareness when those very same products are linked to increased rates of disease.

If you want to make sure your money is going to people with breast cancer who need it, donate directly to organizations (more on that below!) who fund research for a cure, or support patients and survivors.

Women of color are disproportionately affected by breast cancer in America, especially by triple negative breast cancer, one of the more aggressive kinds. A few of your spare dollars can go towards addressing that gap. Sisters By Choice provides free mammograms to uninsured women and holds free educational programs on breast cancer, while the Black Women’s Health Imperative was the first organization in the U.S. devoted to the health of Black women and girls. The Smith Center for Healing & The Arts holds programs to help people affected by cancer, while Sisters Network is one of the biggest survivorship support groups for Black women facing breast cancer in the U.S. The National LGBT Cancer Network provides support for LGBTQ+ cancer patients and survivors, too.

Looking to do some virtual volunteering? The American Cancer Society has a volunteer center where you can sign up to support all aspects of their work, from helping create policy change at the Cancer Action Network to setting up fun runs for Making Strides For Breast Cancer. Register as a volunteer to find an opportunity that fits your schedule.

October is the time to be open about your breast health — and a family history of breast cancer plays a strong role in your own risk. Even if you’re from a family where health and bodies are difficult topics, now’s a good time to try to introduce them to the conversation. Settle parents or family members down over Zoom with a cup of tea and start gently asking questions about who had what in the past. The more you know about the cancer history in your family, the better positioned you are to make informed choices with your doctor, like when to start mammograms or if you should get tested for the BRCA gene.

Studies cited:

Maringe, C., Spicer, J., Morris, M., Purushotham, A., Nolte, E., Sullivan, R., Rachet, B., & Aggarwal, A. (2020). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer deaths due to delays in diagnosis in England, UK: a national, population-based, modelling study. The Lancet. Oncology, 21(8), 1023–1034. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1470-2045(20)30388-0

Scott, L. C., Mobley, L. R., Kuo, T. M., & Il’yasova, D. (2019). Update on triple-negative breast cancer disparities for the United States: A population-based study from the United States Cancer Statistics database, 2010 through 2014. Cancer, 125(19), 3412–3417. https://doi.org/10.1002/cncr.32207

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