When it comes to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I find myself confused and conflicted. I have been kind of sitting this one out this year. I read and take on board the apparent hi-jacking of the ribbon, particularly in the US and the contradiction in the small amounts of proceeds going to breast cancer work, in particular research into metastatic breast cancer. At the same time, my heart is incredibly warmed by close family members supporting pink ribbon ventures and adventures. I hear the arguments that in some contexts, there is inappropriate marketing and commercialisation. I believe it is not an “either/or” situation or awareness versus research. Until Breast cancer touches us, we tend to close our senses to awareness. Added to that, it seems that there are huge swathes of populations the messages
do not reach or choices are not there. Equally, there is a glaring lack of research around metastatic breast cancer (MBC). I am woefully uninformed about research into MBC, particularly over here, so am not going to even attempt to discuss that.
But I want to focus on where I am, right here, right now and share some thoughts and observations, purely on awareness and its connection to pink. There is already more than enough for me to say about basic and real awareness.
I flagged down a taxi outside the hospital in Bangkok on Day One of the checks, to head back to the hotel. The taxi was bright pink. Now actually that is not unusual as many taxis in Thailand are pink. Some are green and yellow and a small number are blue, orange or other colours. But the majority, to my eye seem to be either pink or green and yellow. However, what struck me particularly about this taxi, was the upholstery which was a bright shocking pink! That is far less usual.
Having just drawn away from the hospital doors and their Pink October campaign, and being surrounded in the blogosphere by a range of views and discussions around pink and the pink ribbon, my mind was swirling in confusions and associations.
Pink is a very auspicious colour in Thailand, and I would be very surprised if the first meaning associated with the colour is anywhere near breast cancer. People wearing pink t-shirts can be seen in swathes in Thailand, as a sign of support and respect. So in Thailand, pink already has differing significance and there is a wealth of pink in sight. In terms of Breast Cancer Awareness, there is a level of pink ribbon presence, but I have yet to see inappropriate or broad sweeping pink ribbon marketing.
Then something interesting happened. In my bonus days in Bangkok, for the extra scans and work, I escaped for some numbing, only-looking shopping time to one of the big malls. My eye was caught by a card display, with lovely geckos on the front. The cards were printed in brightly coloured, good quality paper. Each set came in a grouping of five colours. Of course, including blue. So one of the five cards in the set was the most beautiful image of a group of very feisty blue geckos.
I had to have a set. I took them down and examined them, with their lively colours, heaps of attitude and little gems to accentuate the artwork. And then I saw this:
“Supporting Breast Cancer Outreach Projects”
You have to remember that I live in an environment where there is little “pink ribbon” marketing, so to see this was incredibly warming. Not to mention, uncannily pertinent! This does not appear to me as commercialisation or exploitation of the pink ribbon. Jaab is a fair trade company and a proportion of the proceeds go towards a variety of Breast Cancer Projects. In particular, there is a focus on outreach work for women in marginalised or difficult circumstances.
My views on pink ribbon marketing are no secret, and not exactly mainstream. More like slipstream. I am keenly aware that the marketing seems to exist in extremes around the globe. Here, awareness seems to be much more tightly linked to the pink ribbon that it does in more commercialised contexts.
After the checks in Bangkok, of course, I returned to Yangon. I have already written a fair bit about the void there is here in terms of awareness and marketing. It is not my intent to repeat what I have said earlier, but rather to add to this. I ran a short session earlier this month with a group here and showed the pink ribbon as part of the introductory discussion. Not ONE single person knew its association / designation of breast cancer. Not one. I knew awareness was in a different place, but this really shook me, and shows just how incredibly inconsistently the pink ribbon is known and used around the world. We went on to discuss some basic awareness including signs to have checked, and again talked explored beliefs about causes and risk. Many believe that wearing old and tight underwear is a cause, and that it is a disease which mainly affects unmarried women. For me real awareness is just that. REAL awareness. And it is so important here, for example, where much is very different, yet the disease impacts cruelly and indiscriminately.
My plea is simple. All I ask is that we remember that awareness varies enormously, as does the use of the pink ribbon and merchandising. There are so many different shades of pink. And perhaps we can learn about different ways of balancing marketing with awareness raising from unexpected sources.