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Opinion Having fun with breast cancer isn’t just wrong – it’s a mockery

Cancer isn't fun.

My mom comes from a family of 12 kids, and half of them have had it. Four of those died from it. Her own run-in with cancer was terrifying and exhausting. It ruined her digestive system, and with it a lifelong enjoyment of cooking and food.

So I understand the instinct that cancer charities have to put an energetic spin on their fundraising attempts. Hope opens wallets far faster than imminent last goodbyes. "Cancer can be beaten" is a sentiment people can get behind; "although you'll likely never be the same" is the afterthought we'd all prefer to ignore.

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But there's a fine line between trying to find the lighter side of a dark time and near-mockery of those who are suffering. We're in the middle of October, otherwise known as Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I for one am sick of being bombarded with boobs.

All over Asia, pink cars run by the cab company GrabTaxi are currently plastered with the question "Love Boobs?" followed by the tasteless line "So does cancer." The British charity CoppaFeel promotes breast self-exams via ambassadors known as Boobettes. And here in Canada, the annual Rethink Breast Cancer gala is called the Boobyball, with this year's event promising to blast attendees off to a sci-fi party spot known as Planet Booby.

These campaigns are infantilizing, reducing women (and men and trans people) to a body part, one that might have to be sacrificed to live.

"This extreme objectification is a new phase of breast-cancer awareness," says Samantha King, author of Pink Ribbons, Inc., a 2008 book that examined how breast cancer is, rather creepily, a dream come true for companies that want to bask in the glow of corporate do-gooding.

A professor at Queen's University in Kingston, King helped popularize the term "pinkwashing" to describe campaigns that flaunt the ubiquitous pink ribbon but have negligible effects on the realities of breast cancer. Pinkwashers are companies that don't mention that donations are capped no matter how many pink-ribboned trinkets you buy. They are charities whose fundraising efforts are more likely to fund drug research by billionaire pharmaceutical companies rather than work to determine root causes.

This month, King was inundated with e-mail after a local burger shop painted the message "We support the boobies of Kingston" across its window, promising to donate 50 cents from each sale of a so-called "breast burger" to an unnamed charity. "It makes me angry," says King. "It shows no consideration to the women … who are suffering."

The emotional, softly feminine campaigns King first wrote about seem to have worn out their welcome. The mighty Susan G. Komen foundation in the United States has faced numerous accusations of pinkwashing and corporate bullying, and King says its Run for the Cure has been less popular as a result.

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This aggressively sexual approach seems to be the new tack, but King says it still focuses on diagnosis and treatment, not the preventive research she would prefer.

Montreal's Ravida Din produced a 2011 documentary based on King's book. "We found that most of the money raised went to [drug] research and awareness campaigns. About 15 per cent was allocated to prevention," says Din, a breast-cancer survivor herself.

Din finds booby-based campaigns almost prejudiced. "These are highly effective marketing campaigns designed to appeal to a particular demographic – white, middle-class women," says Din. But poor women are more likely to die from the disease and the Canadian Breast Cancer Support Fund says that 27 per cent of breast-cancer patients take on debt to fund treatment.

In the U.S., black women are more likely than their white counterparts to die from breast cancer. Here, we know that Chinese and South Asian women are less likely to have regular screening, but Din says that a real understanding of how the disease affects Canada's racialized communities is a huge research black hole.

And in 2012, a study of more than 1,000 women in Windsor, Ont., found that women who worked in farming and canning had higher breast-cancer rates than the population at large. Yet one piece of oft-repeated preventive advice is to eat fresh, pesticide-free organic foods. In context, it's a useless throwaway tip, one that's borderline cruel.

"These awareness campaigns almost all focus on individual change," says Din. "The onus is on us as individuals, continually deflecting a very hard look at products and chemicals and environmental factors."

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Boobs – I'm sorry, breasts – are beautiful and important. But our digestive systems are rather important too, and fundraising for colorectal cancer (which is what my mom had, and which is the third most diagnosed cancer in Canada) shouldn't rely on our affection for assholes.

This year, 5,000 Canadians are projected to die from breast cancer. That's not remotely seductive, and trying to pretend otherwise kind of makes you a boob.

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