Do Awareness Months Work?

October 28, 2015

Recently, a friend confessed to experiencing cancer awareness month fatigue. For weeks now, her Facebook news feed and Twitter updates were filled with one cancer reminder after the other. She felt completely overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of cancers and bombarded by the amount of related information. Given my field of work, she felt guilty about even raising the issue, but she felt compelled to ask me: “Tell me the truth, Kim. Does it make a difference? Does it actually help?” I completely understand this question and can’t blame my friend for how she feels. The fall is a particularly busy time of year.

September, October and November raise awareness for 15 different cancers as compared to 14 during the entire rest of the year. September alone features 8 cancers. Without a doubt, the fall is hectic and it can be a challenge to give each cancer special attention but I can say without reservation that it is worth it. Awareness months do make a difference and they should not be abandoned. Like a birthday or anniversary, having a time set aside during the calendar year gives some assurance that the disease in question will receive attention. Media will produce stories about it. Books may be released in conjunction with it. Groups will organize events for support as well as fundraising for research towards a cure. It’s perhaps an opportunity to remember to schedule a doctor’s appointment or take possibly preventive actions (think sunscreen with effective SPF) or highlight little known signs and symptoms.

At its core, awareness months have as their goal bringing attention to a particular cancer–sometimes its very existence such as male breast cancer– by providing information on the disease and shedding light on the specific challenges it presents. It lets impacted people learn about available health and support services and how to access them. This is all the more important for rare, overlooked cancers or ones that people are generally uncomfortable discussing (think gynecological cancers). Awareness months, and the ribbons used in conjunction with them, are not without controversy. In particular, there is concern that serious medical conditions have been commercialized. There’s a very heartfelt and articulate piece by Nancy Stordahl which lays out some good arguments and concerns about the well-known pink ribbon. In her piece, she challenges us to name any other color ribbon associated with a cancer.

I agree with her that most people probably couldn’t name one. And yet, when we see the unfamiliar dark blue ribbon (colon cancer) or green ribbon (adrenal cancer), doesn’t it invite the question and subsequent conversation? The other big question is whether or not awareness months have had any impact on lives saved. It is difficult to quantify that. Early detection can raise the number of people diagnosed with a cancer and yet, because they are diagnosed earlier, possibly their survival rate is better. All of us at CSC firmly believe these feelings are something that no one should have to go through alone.

We believe that people impacted by cancer, or any serious illness, are empowered by knowledge, strengthened by action and sustained by community. Awareness months may not be perfect, but they do make a difference. For the last two months we’ve asked for your thoughts on awareness.

Here’s what you want people to know about cancer awareness: 

“Be your own advocate. Do your homework.” – Jill W.

“We can do things to protect our health – diet, exercise, sleep, and appropriate supplementation, balance.” – Jan A.

“Cancer has a thousand faces and no one person has the same experience – before, during treatment, after, etc.” – Adele C. 

“To be aware that not all cancer has a pink ribbon, there are a rainbow of colors that represent all kinds of cancers.” – Barbara N. 

“The more we talk [about cancer] the more we can better understand.” – Donald L.

“I would like to bring awareness to the fact there are 26 different color that are associated with different cancers throughout the year, with one being lavender for all cancers.” – Steve R. 

“Have regular screenings…” – Kathey B. 

Do you have any thoughts to add about the role awareness months play in the cancer experience? Share your thoughts with us on Facebook, or tweet us at @Cancersupportcm.