Monthly Archives: May 2016

Why Pink Stinks: The Backlash Against Breast Cancer Awareness Month

ribbon-cutting

This post was previously published on LinkedIn in October 2015.

As a marketer, I have seen trends come and go in terms of my industry. Things that are hot one minute completely fade into oblivion into the next. But as October has begun, I have seen a backlash that I never thought I would see as openly: One against Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

For as long as I can remember, this month has been explicitly that of the infamous Pink Ribbon, the one that decorates various sundry items in stores. They are on water bottles with cancer-causing BPA, makeup products known to interfere with breast cancer treatments, even foods that patients shouldn’t eat, like buckets of fried chicken.

Since 1991, the pink ribbon has been a rallying point for breast cancer, starting with the Susan G. Komen Foundation distributing them during their famous walks, taking a page from AIDS’ red ribbon. Since then, other ribbons have come up, but the pink ribbon has surpassed them all in the pop culture lexicon, from “Save the ta-tas” t-shits to commemorative coins. The whole idea was that pink was a feminine color, and by displaying the ribbon it was a goodwill call to women that the company or organization that displays it supposedly cares about its non-Y chromosome carrying customers.

I never liked it. You think I would have changed my tune when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer a year and a half ago. Yet several months back, when I walked alongside her into a fundraiser to speak about her experience to a fundraising event, we were forced into a room strewn with pink balloons, bandanas and all sorts of blush-hued doodads dotted across the white clothed tables. Surrounded by these items, I realized my disdain has gotten worse, and reject the idea of claiming pink because my mom doesn’t have breasts anymore.

I felt society’s pressure to display that pink color from the beginning, right down to the pink Converse sneakers I wore to the hospital the day of my mother’s double mastectomy. However, the hours spend pretending that everything’s okay does not equal a color on the Pantone wheel. It can’t describe how my breath caught in my throat when my mother called me and told me she has cancer. It wasn’t saying every word that I was thinking as doctors bungled her treatment and I would rush to sit in her stark hospital rooms, kissing her balding chemo head. A ribbon doesn’t detail the sacrifices made. There was the fear that you might miss out on the rest of your mother’s life while working late hours for a full-time job, instead opting for a freelancer’s life. And then there was the reluctance of bringing a romantic interest into the picture, because you didn’t want pity from anyone.

I’m not the only one who felt this way. While going through her own cancer treatment, my friend Katie is rebelling against pink as she goes through treatment. She understands where it has stood in the cause marketing movement, how it has become the symbol for a fight against a deadly disease. However, try telling her that as her insurance bills accumulate and she goes through radiation.

I look at breast cancer awareness from two different angles. One is as the daughter of a breast cancer survivor, whose treatment and recovery has occupied my life for a good chunk of time. The other is as a savvy marketer in business who sees how messages are delivered to various audiences, not to mention a former journalist who loves researching and breaking down an argument piece by piece. So that is exactly what I’m going to do.

Breast cancer is not that unusual — it’s the second most common cancer for women after skin cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, over 230,000 women year are diagnosed every year (men are also breast cancer victims, though, although it’s much more rare). Approximately one in eight women will have breast cancer in her lifetime, and there are an estimated 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in this country. The statistics prove the fact that most of us in this country either know someone or are related to someone who has or had breast cancer. That ribbon represents breast cancer awareness, but if you’re not aware of breast cancer by now, you might not be alive.

Meanwhile, the Susan G. Komen Foundation has been under fire in recent years, particularly given its defunding of grants to Planned Parenthood in 2012. Its change to the funding of the one of the leading breast cancer screeners in the country caused the founder and CEO to step down, although it was reported the year after that she received a 64 percent increase in salary. Alongside reports of the lack of money put into actual breast cancer research in the same year (only 20 percent of its money, which 50 percent went to “education,” whatever that means), its amount of donations and respectability both took a dive.

The pink ribbon has become so ubiquitous that it’s almost become invisible, and not necessarily a gesture with any meaning behind it — just look at the NFL and its pink shoes come October. Sure, they “support” breast cancer awareness, but domestic violence is also a vital women’s issue and October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month, symbolized by a purple ribbon. Yet I don’t see a swarm of purple ribbons anywhere near the NFL commissioner, and when domestic violence happens in their own ranks, it’s swept under the rug. With friends like these, it’s no wonder that that shade of blush, that colored ribbon to end all cause marketing ribbons, has taken a dive in terms of market value.

Of course, the nail in the coffin isn’t only these factors, but it’s the current state of American life. Right now the federal defunding push of Planned Parenthood, where a huge chunk of breast cancer screenings in this country takes place, is a serious issue that might force the government to shut down again. Beyond Planned Parenthood, healthcare in the United States is still a tremendous issue and no closer to being fixed than it was when the Affordable Care Act was passed, with patients accumulating hundreds of thousands of dollars in hospital debt. The current lack of the middle class allows for very little wiggle room if a person is diagnosed with cancer, with some having to resort to GoFundMe campaigns for their treatments. Now try putting a pink ribbon on that. I dare you.

Cause marketing like this can only work so far in the current state of the world. In this information age, this rising younger generation knows more and is far more educated about a variety of issues. This means we can see the holes clearly in simplistic marketing plans — the pink ribbon, after all, is a marketing plan no matter who claims it. Also, when we see our mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and friends go through cancer, it’s a lot harder to tell us that a pink ribbon will make everything better, because we don’t see it coming for us in our time of need. It doesn’t say anything about the human experience of going through cancer.

What does work is this: My mother standing at a podium and speaking about her breast cancer experience. Talking about my father’s best friend Bill, who he has known for 35 years and is also a breast cancer survivor. Reading Katie’s blogs and hearing her tell her stories. Seeing that it’s people, not just pairs of boobs, going through breast cancer.

Then, in turn, you need to show the ripples in the water from that person — the circles of loved ones, professionals and other people who cancer hits just as hard. It shows how we link to each other as humans. The reason why posts are shared on social media and we rally around causes is because we as humans are moved by the content that talks about it. You can’t move people with a pink water bottle anymore. That way of human life is over.

The stories we tell about our struggles have now become the marketing tools that help us realize the potential we have to experience life as human beings. In turn it allows us to support organizations that go beyond ribbons and corporate sponsors to really help cancer patients, survivors and families — places like the Cancer Support Community and the City of Hope. In turn, it can also go into the vital research that can hopefully prevent the rise of breast cancer in the next generation of women.

The pink ribbon is choking us, preventing us from seeing the real story behind breast cancer, which is what worthy charities need in order to get those fundraising dollars. It’s time to take away the pink and focus on what matters.

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Eulogy for a Mom

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For everyone who has been there this week, for the love that surrounds me, and of course for my mother on Mother’s Day. This is my last gift to you, mom. Thank you.

Sometimes I feel I have lost my words. I lost my words because she gave all of them to me. Every word out of my lips my mother bestowed on me, because she was there for the days when I had no voice.

She sat patiently and fed words to me through speech therapy as a child, every little victory coming with the reward of a wind-up toy. It was so that, as I grew up, I could detail every rush of life, catalog the love and dreams engulfing the universe, and note the turning of the world as it came crashing into us. It was her biggest gift to me.

Even without speech, Jacqueline Amira Slutske taught me through her actions how to become a woman: Be fearless. Smart. Stubborn as hell. Take the lead when it’s your time. Laugh a lot, even when the situation doesn’t call for it; that’s when you need it most. Take care of your own. And never forget where you came from.

In her pursuit of my speech therapy as a child, a doctor told her, “Stop being such a Jewish mother.” She was mad as hell at that statement, but don’t let that fool you: She was definitely a Jewish mother. I butted heads with her regularly, because I learned at her knee to be strong, bold and brave, a commander of your realm. But you could always count on her. That’s what Jewish mothers do: They’re always there, whether to kiss your childhood skinned knees or help you fight the adult-sized demons lying next to you, causing you to scream into the night.

Jackie carried on the name of Jack Arouty, her uncle who was killed during World War II. His mother insisted that my pregnant grandmother and my great aunt, in their desperation and grief, would name Regina Amira’s child after her son. Mom’s birth in Los Angeles was followed by a telegram to her father, who was working on planes at La Guardia. It said, “Hi Dad, I’m here!”

She was the apple of Joseph Amira’s eye. When he would get home from work, she’d hide and he’d always ask aloud, “Where’s Jackie?” She would then jump out of the closet and say, “Here me is!” Mind you, her grammar got a lot better as she got older, particularly because she read so many books. You would never see her without one, whether it was on tape or a paperback. Public libraries were her favorite places, and her passion was learning.

She adored her brother Victor with every fiber of her being, along with her large multi-generational family. Her friend Rachel taught her to sew, and she made so many of her clothes, even her wedding dress. She looked forward to phone calls with her cousin Lorrie on Wednesdays. She played numerous card games with my father and supported him in every way, whether moving across the country several times, typing a master’s thesis while pregnant or cursing a man in Honolulu who was causing him trouble at the community theater. Word to the wise from that: Do not mess with Amira women and those they love, whether it’s her man, her children or even the dogs.

In our childhood, she gave Shoshana and me a wild sense of imagination, knowledge and creativity. She was our teacher, but also the keeper of dreams. Bedtime stories were her specialty, where we would lie there and she would tell us about the wardrobe to Narnia or the night Max wore his wolf suit and journeyed to where the wild things are.

Wherever we moved to, she created a family for us. Our friends weren’t really friends, but rather warmly received relatives who were adopted over time. We shared with our neighbors and mom showed us the joys of a multicultural world. Yet she also taught us to remember who we are: We are Jewish women, Sephardic Jews descended from a proud tradition that carries responsibilities. Be proud of your heritage and share it while remaining respectful and in the modern world. But don’t eat the gefilte fish.

As with our friends who became our family, every kid that came into her house was one of hers too. So much so that my friend Allison would walk into the house, look at my parents and say, “Hi mom, hi dad.” My mother loved it. She yearned to make soup for Remy, who seemed to show up whenever it was on the stove; glowed when Gary sent “Mama Slutske” flowers on Mother’s Day; and relished in sewing baby clothes for Eve’s little girl Jorry, gushing about how cute she was in pictures. And when Victor became ill, she stepped up and became a mom for her niece, Amy, too.

My mother had particular tastes: She adored Motown, Carly Simon and home repair shows. She loved chocolate with caramel, tongue sandwiches and lamb chops; if we were feeling particularly carnivorous on any given night, we turned to each other and said, “Meat,” and laugh when others tried to say it that way and failed. The only thing she really didn’t like was the movie The Sound of Music. This, however, did not stop her from singing the parody version of “My Favorite Things” at our Seder every year.

Every holiday was a labor of love, but particularly Passover. She would spend weeks preparing all the foods and sometimes things wouldn’t go to plan — although I can’t pretend that she wasn’t secretly thrilled that our dog Lucy had no taste for people food except for the novias she made. When Seder came, my mother would read the Haggadah she wrote and her voice would break, because in her own words, she cried at supermarket openings. In the days after her death, the first words to comfort me were her own words about Passover: “I am never alone when I am cooking. Generations of women of my family are encouraging me and smiling.”

I have said so many words, and can keep saying them. But words can’t describe the sound of her laugh that would redden her cheeks and send her smile up to the sky, a lot of which was my doing. You’ll never hear how wicked her sense of humor was, or see the childlike wonder consume her in receiving precious little gifts, like a pinwheel pen or a tea infuser shaped like a manatee.

The last gift I got from mom was one more conversation with her in the hospital on Monday. It was where we could say the words that needed to be said in that tiny little sliver of time, when one life is standing at the edge of glory and the other has many more steps to take. We said we loved each other and she told how proud she was and how she loved getting to know me as an adult. She ran her fingers through my hair one last time with her perfect pink nails as I sobbed at her bedside, and looked into her big brown eyes before kissing her forehead.

And, in the end, the words weren’t there anymore. I was left howling on the floor, holding her hand one last time, crying for my mommy like a five year old child while trying to be a grown up, thanking her for everything she gave me, gave all of us, when the grief was too overwhelming to bear.

There were very few words left at that moment. Yet at the end of it all, it was enough.

Jacqueline Amira Slutske: The Funeral Message

IMG_3265This blog has not had a guest blogger, but its first is my favorite. A month ago, my mom Jacqueline Amira Slutske wrote this piece to be read one day at her funeral. A week ago she passed away, and on Sunday this was read to all those in attendance. For those who couldn’t be there, for those who want to know what type of woman she was, these are her words. Please enjoy them.

To be read at my funeral:

 

Don’t think of me when the last light from the sun is dying, although I appreciated many sunsets and hope you will take the time to be still and let the beauty absorb into your life and your heart.

 

But rather remember me in the early morning when the dew has not yet dried,

When it is easy to hear the conversation of birds,

And when the rising sun sends its rays through the clouds to light up hopes for another day,

Remember me when the day is new and the creatures who dare to go out only in darkness are returning home to their families.

Remember me when strangers wish each other “Good morning”

And dogs have their human companions all to themselves.

 

Remember me when there is something new to be learned and there is joy in the learning.

Remember me when you are sharing stories with the people you love best and making new connections that bind you closer.

Remember me when you are answering questions about the past, and sharing hopes for the future.

I will be there, listening and smiling, just beyond the place where you can see me.

 

I will be there when you enjoy a book that we once enjoyed together,

I will be there when the sun warms your face, and the moon is bright enough to read by.

 

I will be watching when you help someone else, and hoping that I set a good example.

I will be smiling when you say “hello” to a stranger you are passing, and bring a surprised smile to their face

I will be listening when you hum along with music when you are preparing a holiday meal.

 

Even though you will not feel it, I will be holding you when you need to be held,

And hoping that my love is reaching you across the great divide between us now.

I hope that you will remember what I always tried to keep close, in even the worst circumstances, that “this too, shall pass.”

 

I hope that you will take some time each day to dwell on the people and things you have loved and that have made you happy and let the smile that comes to your face linger there for a while.

I hope that you will never see forgiveness as surrender, but as the generous act of love that it is.

I hope that you will always be able to find a silver lining in even the most difficult of circumstances, and that you will find a way to live appreciatively all your life.

 

I will be applauding when you use your creativity to make a better you and a better world, and I will be hoping that the world is a more peaceful and plentiful place for all the children growing up in it.

Know that all great things are accomplished one small step at a time. Be prepared to take that step even if it is terribly scary. I will be there holding your hand.

 

We take our place in the world for a while, and then we leave.

I will live as long as you remember me, and you will live in me forever.

I hope that I have brought light and laughter and love to all of you that I have loved,

Because you have been everything to me.

 

-Jacqueline Slutske