Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus put another face on breast cancer when the Veep star revealed on Twitter last month that she had been diagnosed with the disease. "One in eight women get breast cancer," the actress wrote. "Today, I’m the one."
There is no shortage of women, including many high-profile names, coming forward on social media, in the press, and in advertising campaigns to talk about breast cancer. Thanks in part to the pink ribbon and Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, more women feel empowered to go public with their diagnosis and cancer journey than even five years ago.
Many cancer research organizations continue to put faces on the disease in their fundraising pushes. What differentiates many efforts this October, however, is a sharper focus on the deadliest type of breast cancer.
Two of the country’s biggest and best-known breast cancer organizations, Susan G. Komen and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, are focusing on raising awareness and research dollars for metastatic (Stage IV) breast cancer.
MBC is a resurfacing of the disease, sometimes years after the patient has been treated and cleared of cancer, that has spread to other organs like the lungs, liver, and brain and into their bones. It is responsible for most of the 41,000 annual breast cancer deaths in the U.S.
Breast Cancer Research Foundation is working on an outreach campaign with Larissa Podermanski, who writes about living with Stage IV breast cancer on her blog MetastaticallySpeaking.com.
"In our campaign, Larissa says when she got diagnosed, she didn’t understand what metastatic breast cancer meant. The doctor had to clarify that it is not curable," says Meghan Finn, chief communications and engagement office for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. "So we still have a lot of work to do around awareness and ensuring people know what MBC is, and that it is one of our key areas of research."
The foundation has committed nearly one-third of its grants of more than $18 million to metastatic breast cancer. It is also working closely on awareness and fundraising with the Metastatic Breast Cancer Alliance, which found only 7% of public and private sources of cancer research dollars from 2006 to 2013 went to metastatic.
Susan G. Komen has also focused its October 2017 campaign on the deadly cancer type. Its owned channels and a PSA feature a mother with MBC writing letters to her three young children to be opened at milestone events for which she probably won’t be alive.
"It is more hard-hitting and powerful than [the way] we’ve typically done things," said Andrea Rader, senior director of communications for Susan G. Komen. "But what we want to talk about this year is frankly the breast cancer that kills. These are the people for whom we feel the most urgency."
The organization also launched its first crowdfunding initiative this year, allowing people to contribute directly to the research projects of four scientists dedicated to improving outcomes for patients with MBC.
To date, Komen has invested more than $180 million toward metastatic breast cancer research, and more than 41% of Komen’s 2017 grants are devoted to metastatic research.
In addition to profiling them on its crowdfunding page, Komen is pitching the researchers and their stories to the media, Rader says.
"What people don’t realize is that these scientists often have a very personal motivation for doing beast cancer research," she says. "We wanted to let our community meet these people and link directly to their research."
A new donor target: Men
Also relatively new for cancer charities is an increased focus on targeting men in their outreach. The American Cancer Society is again running its Real Men Wear Pink campaign, which launched nationally last year. The push aims to give men a greater presence in the fight against breast cancer.
Real Men Wear Pink invites communities to nominate local male leaders to raise $2,500 or more and wear pink every day during the month of October. Participants can visit a leaderboard of top fundraisers.
"Everyone close to them may have been touched by the disease, but men haven’t necessarily had a way to come out and demonstrate how they want to fight," says Susan Petre, the organization’s VP of staff events, including its Making Strides Against Breast Cancer events.
"This gives a voice to men that I don’t think necessarily had a voice, but in a competitive and fun way," says Petre. She adds that the ACS is researching how much more money men are raising compared than in past years.
The American Cancer Society is also in the ninth year of its partnership with the NFL, which has raised millions of dollars to fight breast cancer by selling licensed pink merchandise through a program called Crucial Catch. This year the campaign is being expanded to include other cancers with additional colors.
Partnerships between breast cancer charities and corporations have been criticized for being more promotional in nature than trying to affect real change in the fight against the disease.
The advocacy group Breast Cancer Action, which was formed in 1992, has advocated against "pinkwashing" – corporations that put pink ribbons on products but haven’t removed chemicals from those products that have been linked to causing cancer.
It has also spoken out against programs such as the NFL’s Crucial Catch, which raises money for promoting annual breast cancer screening programs. Breast Cancer Action argues awareness is already high and research is where the money is needed most.
"Pink ribbon campaigns can co-opt people’s good intentions. It creates this illusion that they are helping something very meaningful to happen when they make pink purchases," says Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action. The group has also created a consumer toolkit for its Think Before You Pink campaign.
She adds that corporations involved with pink ribbon campaigns should be moving away from funding awareness and earmarking the money to real actions that fight the disease.
"This is a public health crisis and shouldn’t be used for corporate profiteering," says Jaggar.