What Are You Supporting, Exactly?

One of the things that accompanies ‘awareness’ campaigns is the idea that people need to ‘support’ the subject of the campaign in some way. People are sold things like lewd t-shirts and ridiculous rubber bracelets and bumperstickers not only because these things are said to make people more ‘aware,’ but because displaying them in some way conveys ‘support.’

A lot of this gear, in the case of breast cancer, is really sexist and objectifying and gross. Trust me, people, a shirt informing me that you want to ‘save the boobies[1. Unless, of course, you are referring to the blue-footed booby, a bird that could actually benefit from some conservation efforts.] does not really make me feel like you have an interest in public health issues, or care about women’s health in particular. Likewise with all other gear reducing people to component body parts and focusing on how dreadful it would be to lose a mammary gland or two; I’m far more interested in lost lives.

I’m not really sure what people are supporting, here, and this may be a fundamental cultural incomprehension. I don’t really get how displaying a US flag ‘supports’ the United States for example, or how wearing some colour or another on a given ‘awareness’ day is ‘supportive.’ I get some support campaigns; for example, I think campaigns exhorting people to wear particular colours or logos on particular days to support anti-bullying campaigns help, because they send a clear message, telling people that the person wearing the gear is against bullying, wants to provide support to people experiencing bullying, will fight bullying, and is engaged in trying to create a safe space for victims of abuse and violence. In this case, physical and clear support is needed because it’s in doubt. Gay students being bullied, for example, don’t know who is safe to approach because everyone could potentially be dangerous, and having people identify themselves as safe serves a clear function.

But what is being ‘supported’ here? It’s not like anyone is in doubt that breast cancer is a bad thing. Most people are, I believe, anti-breast cancer. I certainly can’t think of anyone who thinks breast cancer is awesome, and talks about how sweet it is when people die of painful chronic diseases. Thus, it’s not like people need to outwardly display their hatred of breast cancer, or shame people who don’t carry similar outward displays, because, really, people, we are all in this together. Pretty much everyone hates cancer.

And I am not arguing that breast cancer patients and survivors do not need support. Far from it. While in treatment, people could use a lot of support. Post treatment, as people adjust to life in remission, they still need support. But, here’s the thing, maybe I am wrong, but I don’t see how wearing a pink ribbon provides any kind of meaningful or useful support. I’m willing to be wrong here, since I am not a breast cancer patient or survivor. But I have lost family members to breast cancer, and seeing a pink ribbon doesn’t make me feel better. I am at high risk for breast cancer, and seeing an ‘I heart boobies’ bracelet doesn’t make me feel supported.

I think there is, perhaps, a tendency, when we are confronted with things that are huge and scary, to try and figure out a way to combat them, and we realise there isn’t an immediately meaningful way. Fighting them and confronting them requires work. And here, the breast cancer ‘awareness’ industry has swept in with a pile of junk people can use to show how ‘supportive’ they are, to make people feel better about the fact that they personally cannot cure or prevent cancer.

The thing is, some people who do a lot of supportive work wear ‘support’ gear. I can’t tell by looking at someone in a ‘save the ta-tas’ shirt if that person is in the process of picking up groceries for a cancer patient, provides rides to medical appointments, helps clean houses for people with cancer, visits people in hospice, heck, participates in cancer research, is a cancer survivor, even. It’s not like research scientists wander around with ‘hello, I am a scientist working on breast cancer’ nametags. However, I also can’t tell if that person bought a pink ribbon and then called it good, decided ‘ok, I’m being supportive now.’

Because, here’s the thing. Many people like to say they are supportive and like to wear the outward trappings of support, but when it comes down to it, a lot of those people tend to disappear. When they are asked to provide support and assistance and are given some options appropriate for their level of interest, involvement, and ability, they don’t respond. Or they say ‘well, I want to help, but not like that‘ as though there is some other, easier way of helping. Or they want to tell people what kind of help they need, instead of asking cancer patients what would actually be personally helpful to them.

There’s a certain point in treatment when you start to realise that most of those ‘supportive’ people won’t be there for you, won’t help, that it will take more time to explain what you need and convince them to provide it than it will to just take care of it yourself. There’s a point in treatment where people stop calling, stop visiting, stop asking your partner about your wellbeing. There’s a point where people just start to forget you. And all the pink ribbons in the world don’t make up for that.