How should we talk about breast cancer?

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. The chances of survival from breast cancer increase significantly the earlier it is diagnosed so messages that raise awareness save lives. But how should those messages be expressed? Unlike most other cancer related advertising, breast cancer ads can often stray into being sexy and fun – because breasts themselves can be sexy and fun. Is this a helpful way to discuss cancer though?

Cancer is hard to talk about. Our feelings about the disease will be affected by personal experience, stories from famous people, media reporting and advertising. In the latter category, the challenge for charities and health organisations lies in getting advice across to people in a way that is straightforward and easy-to-understand but still compelling.

Looking at a series of recent breast cancer awareness ads, it would seem that one perceived solution to this problem has been to place the emphasis on breasts themselves, and leave the cancer part to the tagline. A new spot from BETC Paris for Carte Noire and the Association Le cancer du sein – parlons-en! (Let’s talk about cancer!) features numerous French personalities sharing nicknames for their breasts. Beautifully shot, the film feels more like a upmarket fashion ad than a cancer awareness spot.

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Ad for Carte Noire and Association Le Cancer du Sein – Parlons-en (Let’s Talk About breast Cancer) by BETC Paris

Also focused on the way that women describe their breasts is an ongoing campaign from UK charity Coppafeel. Titled ‘what normal feels like?’, these ads feature images of bare breasts, with words such as ‘squidgy’ and ‘peachy’ written across them. Coppafeel is a charity aimed particularly at young women (it was founded by Kris Hallenga, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 23), and these ads are apparently intended to encourage women to think about their breasts in non-sexual terms. If this is the case though, the use of nudity here is confusing, and again vastly overshadows the campaign’s message. And, like the CarteNoire spot, there is little information on what exactly women should be looking out for, what the danger signs actually are.

While obviously well-intentioned, there is a risk with these campaigns that the core health-awareness message gets lost, or worse, that women even feel offended by them. Other breast cancer campaigns emphasising sexiness or innuendo have been even more blatant – ‘No Bra Day’, an initiative apparently created by breast cancer campaigners, has led to headlines such as ‘Set your girls free’ in the press, which raises the question of who exactly it is aimed at. For women such an approach can feel boring, objectifying, and patronising. (I wonder too how these campaigns might feel to women who have already been diagnosed with breast cancer and undergone surgery. Is there a danger that an emphasis on the sexiness of breasts may actually be painful for breast cancer sufferers, instead of supportive?)

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Coppafeel's 'What does normal feel like?' campaign
Images from Coppafeel’s ‘What normal feels like?’ campaign

Perhaps an alternative approach might be to talk to women about breasts as if they are another body part, rather than one that is always bound up in sex. Humour could still be used – it is after all a powerful way of imparting difficult information – though it is interesting to read that recent reports have shown that awareness of breast cancer has also risen since Angelina Jolie spoke publicly about her decision to have a double mastectomy, a sign that we are also able to cope with serious discussion of the disease too.

Jolie’s ‘Diary of a Surgery’ in the New York Times highlighted the need to be pragmatic around cancer, to be aware of the risks and not fear them. At no point did she try to lighten the message or to link breast cancer awareness with being sexy and fun. Because let’s face it, it isn’t.

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