"Oh, yeah," she said, vaguely, when questioned about it. "It's for breast cancer."
It's hard to remember that, not so long ago, the phrase "breast cancer" was not something women spoke aloud, even among themselves. It wasn't until the early 1970s, with the high-profile diagnoses of the former child star Shirley Temple Black, the first lady Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller that the disease went public. A short time later, Betty Rollin, an NBC-TV correspondent, published the groundbreaking memoir "First You Cry." Back then, her grief over losing her breast and the blow cancer dealt to her sex life was greeted with hostility by some critics and dismissed as frivolous. Mammography was just coming into use to detect early-stage tumors. The American Cancer Society was still resisting the idea of support groups for post-mastectomy patients. A woman like Rollin, some said, was supposed to be grateful that she qualified for a radical mastectomy, stuff a sock in her bra and get on with it.
Fast-forward to today, when, especially during October, everything from toilet paper to buckets of fried chicken to the chin straps of N.F.L. players look as if they have been steeped in Pepto. If the goal was "awareness," that has surely been met — largely, you could argue, because corporations recognized that with virtually no effort (and often minimal monetary contribution), going pink made them a lot of green.
But a funny thing happened on the way to destigmatization. The experience of actual women with cancer, women like Rollin, Black, Ford and Rockefeller — women like me — got lost. Rather than truly breaking silences, acceptable narratives of coping emerged, each tied up with a pretty pink bow. There were the pink teddy bears that, as Barbara Ehrenreich observed, infantilized patients in a reassuringly feminine fashion. "Men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars," she wrote in her book "Bright-Sided."
Alternatively, there are what Gayle Sulik, author of "Pink Ribbon Blues," calls "She-roes" — rhymes with "heroes." These aggressive warriors in heels kick cancer's butt (and look fab doing it). Like the bear huggers, they say what people want to hear: that not only have they survived cancer, but the disease has made them better people and better women. She-roes, it goes without saying, do not contract late-stage disease, nor do they die.
That rubber bracelet is part of a newer, though related, trend: the sexualization of breast cancer. Hot breast cancer. Saucy breast cancer. Titillating breast cancer! The pain of "First You Cry" has been replaced by the celebration of "Crazy Sexy Cancer," the title of a documentary about a woman "looking for a cure and finding her life."
Sassy retail campaigns have sprung up everywhere, purporting to "support the cause." There is Save the Ta-Tas (a line that includes T-shirts and a liquid soap called Boob Lube), Save Second Base, Project Boobies (the slogan on its T-shirts promoting self-exam reads, "I grab a feel so cancer can't steal," though the placement of its hot-pink handprints makes it virtually impossible for them to belong to the shirt's wearer). There is the coy Save the Girls campaign, whose T-shirt I saw in the window of my local Y.M.C.A. And there is "I ❤ Boobies" itself, manufactured by an organization called Keep a Breast (get it?).
Sexy breast cancer tends to focus on the youth market, but beyond that, its agenda is, at best, mushy. The Keep a Breast Foundation, according to its Web site, aims to "help eradicate breast cancer by exposing young people to methods of prevention, early detection and support." If only it were that simple. It also strives to make discussion of cancer "positive and upbeat." Several other groups dedicate a (typically unspecified) portion of their profits to "educate" about self-exam, though there is little evidence of its efficacy. Or they erroneously tout mammography as "prevention."
There's no question that many women, myself included, experience breast cancer as an assault on our femininity. Feeling sexual in the wake of mastectomy, lumpectomy, radiation or chemo is a struggle, one that may or may not result in a new, deeper understanding of yourself. While Betty Rollin acknowledged such visceral feelings about breasts, she never reduced herself to them. And in the 1990s, the fashion model Matuschka's notorious photo of her own mastectomy scar (published on the cover of this magazine) demanded that the viewer, like breast- cancer patients themselves, confront and even find beauty in the damage.
By contrast, today's fetishizing of breasts comes at the expense of the bodies, hearts and minds attached to them. Forget Save the Ta-Tas: how about save the woman? How about "I ❤ My 72-Year-Old One-Boobied Granny?" After all, statistically, that's whose "second base" is truly at risk.
Rather than being playful, which is what these campaigns are after, sexy cancer suppresses discussion of real cancer, rendering its sufferers — the ones whom all this is supposed to be for — invisible. It also reinforces the idea that breasts are the fundamental, defining aspect of femininity. My friend's daughter may have been uncertain about what her bracelet "for breast cancer" meant, but I am betting she got that femininity equation loud and clear.
I hate to be a buzz kill, but breast cancer is just not sexy. It's not ennobling. It's not a feminine rite of passage. And, though it pains me to say it, it's also not very much fun. I get that the irreverence is meant to combat crisis fatigue, the complacency brought on by the annual onslaught of pink, yet it similarly risks turning people cynical. By making consumers feel good without actually doing anything meaningful, it discourages understanding, undermining the search for better detection, safer treatments, causes and cures for a disease that still afflicts 250,000 women annually (and speaking of figures, the number who die has remained unchanged — hovering around 40,000 — for more than a decade).
As for me, I bear in mind the final statement that a college pal of mine who was dying of breast cancer (last October, in the midst of all that sexy pink) made to her younger brother. She was about to leave two young sons to grow up without a mother; her husband to muddle through without his wife. She could barely speak at the time, barely breathe. But when her brother leaned forward, she whispered two words in his ear: "This sucks."