Monday, December 5, 2011

Breast Cancer and Middle School

My original intended purpose for this blog was to be an observer  and commentator on all things (breast) cancer culture, in a way to try and make sense of my own experience at the same time.  It still doesn't make sense by the way.  Today's post is going back to this blog's roots and asking some tough questions, so I'd ask that you suspend your emotions and read the entire post before commenting.  And please do comment, because I'm very interested to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or disagree.

This article appeared in the December issue of one of our local magazines, The Journal. It's about a local middle school's efforts to raise funds for a local breast cancer organization, Breast Intentions, that provides financial assistance to women in need who are going through breast cancer.  In fact, the charity they support was founded four years ago by two local fifteen year old high school students, an admirable accomplishment indeed as well as a worthy cause.  It seems clear that the purpose of this story was to congratulate these middle-schoolers on their fundraising accomplishments, as well as supporting the good work of the beneficiary charity.

And for most readers, the feel good story would stop there.  Well done kids!

But, of course, I see things a little differently.

Middle-school involvement in the pink breast cancer movement, be it fundraising events like this, education programs within the schools, pink ribbon decorations, flags and signs, or indeed civil liberty legal actions to preserve students' First Amendment rights to wear "I (heart) Boobies" bracelets, certainly seems to be increasing, as does the associated media coverage. Rather than making me feel good, it's making me a little queasy and rather uneasy.

Firstly, I'm uncomfortable that breast cancer, the disease, has been elevated by slick marketing to a status that screams to the general public that it is far more important than other major killers of women, like heart disease or lung and other cancers.  (See

And in reading this article I couldn't help thinking about all the kids, who took part in the pink parade in their tie dyed pink shirts, and whose parent or other significant person, was at home suffering from some other kind of cancer or catastrophic illness.  How did these kids feel about all the attention (and money) being paid to breast cancer?  Did they have a voice?   Were they able to express their feelings of discontent and frustration?  Did they even think about it?  I really wonder.  Do the schools have fundraising events and parades of this scale for other Health Observances? What kind of message are we really sending to these middle schoolers?  That breast cancer is the only disease that matters?

In my limited research of this topic, I came across several charitable organizations that offer education programs for adoption by both middle and high schools.  Here's an example of one program offered to Wisconsin schools by an organization called the Breast Cancer Family Foundation.

This particular organization educates young people on the premise of "proven risk-reduction strategies" that apparently may prevent many types of cancer, "not only breast cancer".  The program, specifically aimed at breast and testicular cancers, focuses on "self-examination, diet and lifestyle".  

Whilst I can certainly see merit in encouraging kids to maintain a healthy lifestyle for all manner of reasons and to be aware of their own bodies, but to suggest that these are proven ways to prevent breast cancer is just not evidence-based.  The point being that we still don't really know exactly what causes breast or other cancers.

I'd make the same point about self-examination and early detection.  These are methods of cancer diagnosis.  They don't prevent or cure cancer or categorically save lives.   So why are we pushing breast cancer education curriculums that have little scientific basis to school kids?  Where's the value in that, other than perpetuating the cycle of misinformation all in the name of pink breast cancer awareness?

For the horsey girl in your life
If this is indeed happening on a wide scale in schools, then I hold grave fears for the future generation of breast cancer activists.  Indoctrination to the pink party line is starting earlier and earlier.  What's next?  Breast cancer programs for kindergartners?  Don't laugh, I don't think it's beyond the realm of possibility at this point, and we already have the toys!

On another note, in the U.S. there's an ever present debate about the extent to which there should be a mingling of church and state, particularly within the public school system.  Readers,  I put it to you that now we have the mingling of breast and state within schools, for better or worse.  Whilst I applaud any school's efforts to encourage altruism within their student body, and I fully support including cancer as a topic within any health education curriculum, I'm uncomfortable with schools' elevating breast cancer to this pink extent.  As Ronnie Hughes of the Being Sarah blog, so eloquently put it;

"Pink's not wrong. It's just not right enough."

And that's the problem.


So what do we want middle school kids to know about breast cancer, or cancer in general?  What do they need to know?

Is it right to popularize breast cancer over other cancers and diseases within the public school system with events like the one in the article?

Is this even an issue?

Please comment, I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  1. My 6th grader's MS did a bunch of pink stuff-- starting in Sept (which is ovarian cancer awareness month). His response was to ask "Where's the Teal?" (the color of OC awareness)

    Next year he will be prepared to ask to add teal to the mix. I'm letting him handle this. I was diagnosed when he was in kindergarten-- not sure he remembers a time in our house pre-cancer.

  2. Honoured to be quoted. And shocked to see how deeply the pink culture is infiltrating your school system. Good it's being discussed, mind (if I'd even said 'breast' at my British school on the 70s I'd have been expelled for other reasons than I was). But given it is being discussed, it would be great if it could be done more intelligently. I assume you do have science teachers who could advise, and broaden the discussions to other cancers?

  3. This is an excellent, post, Rachel, that raises more questions than I can provide answers, or even observations.

    But my first observation is this: it's always about raising money, isn't it? Remember when kids used to collects cans,or actually engage in some activity they thought up themselves? I feel like I was born in another century these days (of course I was, but you know what I mean...) All across the country what gets attention is kids raising MONEY.

    What the article does not point out - oddly enough - is what the kids' personal connection to cancer was/is. Is there someone in the family with breast cancer? I don't necessarily buy the fact that kids, on their own accord, would suddenly decide, oh, let's go be good Samaritans and raise money for the pink bandwagon! WOW! Maybe we'll get PR and end up on the Nightly News! So from the beginning not all is right with the evolution of this effort. Pretty suspect, in fact.

    Given the overall health of the nation's children and tendency toward obesity - I would want cancer to have its place in health class with emphasis on setting up a lifetime of health conscious habits. A reasonable diet. Exercise, etc. Some might feel that putting on a pink wig made cancer a heck of a lot of fun. And that's part of the problem. We all know that it isn't.

    I'm going to be thinking about this for some time.

    Thanks for an excellent post,

  4. This is a great topic! A friend of mine's 14 year old daughter just participated in something similar at her middle school. My friend knew I would have some thoughts about it . . . and I did.

    I take issue with it because it both popularizes breast cancer (over other conditions and cancers) and it sexualizes (I think) a disease that kills. The fact that it gets the attention that it does in middle school (and the whole "I heart boobies" campaign's popularity) is, in my opinion, due to the fact that sex is involved.

    I am not a prude. But, let's face it, they are not doing colon cancer brown shirt days, or prostate cancer or testicular cancer or pancreatic cancer or lung cancer days on middle school campuses.

    It makes me nauseous that this is now in our kids' playgrounds, that they are being taught about breast cancer from the perspective of a pink culture and that breast cancer is THE cancer to talk about. Also, it is not where I would want my child to learn about cancer. And what about teaching our kids about a healthy diet and exercise (as ways to prevent disease)? I would rather see that.

    I appreciate that the school is trying to encourage something altruistic. But, if it were my kid, I would prefer that they be involved in a food drive. There are plenty of things that don't involve breasts that can be altruistic. I just can't seem to separate the fact that making this THE cancer to be dealt with on a middle school campus isn't somehow sending a message about it being important because it is sexy, because it involves breasts. I don't know. Maybe I am being hypersensitive. But, when I first heard about something like this at my friend's daughter's school I was upset. I felt that it trivialized cancer.

    Well, those are my thoughts. Great post!


  5. One of my kids was in 7th grade the year of diagnosis and treatment. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the disease at that age, really any disease. Many schools are now doing big fundraisers for charities. That part I do not mind. We had more trouble with empathy and proper ways to console a friend when you are ill. Several really good friends did not speak to her at all once she told them about my cancer. Others did not tell their parents when we assumed they had. Most teachers and staff were understanding and sympathetic. Too many people mentioned the family member that died from cancer when I attended a school event. My daughter got very tired of being asked if I was okay.

  6. Thanks for this important post, Rachel, and I think you raise a lot of important points. The picture from the article certainly promotes the "fun" image of breast cancer. As we all know, it's not really any fun at all.

    My kids' school raises money in October too. I looked into where they send it and told them I have suggestions... to their credit, the send it directly to a research hospital.

    But to Jody's point, their school is making an effort to get away from the idea of bringing in a dollar for things then patting themselves on the back. They want the kids more involved in hands-on service projects this year. I think that's a vital lesson for the kids - to DO instead of throw money at blindly.


  7. You raise such excellent points and Jody-your mention of childhood obesity just brought something else to my mind and it's something that is unfortunately a health issue I know far too much about..... Eating disorders. There was recently (last week recently) a seminar at Rockefeller Research Labs. If I can post the PDF on my blog, Rachel, you can copy it here if you find it relevant to this conversation.

    In middle school they should NOT be talking about breast cancer, just my opinion. How about things like healthy eating, body image (to do something about the DEATH rate among anorexics), BULLYING (and the suicide rates), cyber-bullying....

    I think what I'm trying to say is this. Let the kids concentrate on issues that are affecting their lives. Let the adults stick with the adult stuff.

    And yes, INSENSITIVE to the kid whose dad or grandpa has lung cancer or (as I had happen with my neighbor) ALS (where we were all on a death watch as that is a disease without ANY HOPE).

    OK.... I'm blabbing while I only really skimmed. I have to go take care of some rather important paperwork.... My life is a mess AGAIN and lets just say it's all about dealing with kid health issues that I mentioned in my first sentence. Forgive me if I'm making no sense....

    Love ya, Rach...


  8. Rachel,
    As you indicate, it's a complex issue.

    With regard to fundraising - I know several middle-school kids who, upon seeing relatives and friends' moms with BC, have thought of their own initiative to take action. I've also witnessed kids (young; long before college app time) helping the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Autism Speaks, an AIDS organization, and an MS agency, among others.

    It seems to me that charity work/fundraising in almost any manner can help kids feel less powerless in the context of a parent's or sibling's illness, besides raising money for research, helping patients, other services.

    As far as frankness and words like "breast," that's no issue in our culture. Kids read our blogs and way-scarier stuff.

    The bottom line, I think, is that there's a variety of worthy causes, some better-run and lesser-run charities. Kids should learn to evaluate the non-profits and sort among them based on their values and priorities.

    But I can't see why this is wrong. Besides, openness is so much, much better than the way things used to be.

  9. I wonder what a middle school is doing spending this much time and energy on anything other than academic subjects. I think it is the job of a school to educate students and I don't think this type of event does much to educate the kids, in general or more specifically about cancer (including breast cancer).

    I guess I really have a problem with charitable activities being pushed by schools.

  10. Ah, the "fun" of breast cancer awareness!

    My son is in middle school and serves on the student council. He came home one day near the end of October and informed me that some of the kids wanted a "pink tag day" where they could pay $1 to wear jeans and a pink shirt. The money would go to "some breast cancer charity". One kid said he didn't care where it went, he just wanted a day to not have to wear his uniform.

    I got involved and sent an email to the school asking that this not be approved because wearing pink does nothing to raise true awareness about breast cancer. Or, that if the kids really wanted to have a tag day, that the petitioners choose a specific charity and that they do some research about that organization.

    I also suggested that it may even be better if the kids could use the funds to purchase hats/and or scarves and donate those to the local cancer center for those who have lost their hair during chemo treatments.

    Well, they never got their pink tag day.

  11. As an educator, I feel pretty uncomfortable with the first story you featured for several reasons. First of all, like others have said, why zero in on this particular disease? In my mind, this is more proof of "the breast cancer take over." It's just not right, and sadly I agree with Cancerfree2b's comment about the "sex connection." I'm also wondering if a middle school is the proper place for bc fundraising. With so many causes, why this one? Is it because it's easy and creates highly visable feel good opportunity/positive PR?

    As to the other organization you mentioned, and as a Wisconsinite no less, in my view the schools should be focused on teaching healthy lifestyles for the purpose of preventing all diseases. Again bc should be included, but not singled out. And schools should most definitely stick to science based curriculum, again my view.

    Finally, I believe kids learn more from actual hands on activities where they are actually "doing good" rather than by raising dollars. Parents and teachers get really tired of fund raisers period.

    Great post. Thanks for writing it.

  12. Wow. Another incredibly thought-provoking post, Rach.

    The first thing that leaps out at me is to wonder what the kids really learned? They learned a lot about tie-dyeing. And they learned about using brand-marketing to raise money. And they learned, perhaps, about the nuts and bolts of organizing a community event. And that seems to be it. These are not worthless lessons by any means, but did they learn anything really germaine about the cause they were supporting? It doesn't appear that they did.

    Frankly, as you & others have asked, what exactly do we want children this age to learn about breast or any other type of cancer? While I have some issues with and questions about one of Breast Friends' missions -- to promote monthly breast self-exams -- their main mission, to provide financial help to individuals who are being treated for breast cancer, is a laudable one. And it seems to me that a review of their site's FAQ page, which describes the circumstances of a number of the individuals they've recently helped, would have provided for a lot more opportunities to learn something about the reality of having cancer.

    As Jody, Helen & others have pointed out, I wondered where the personal connection was in all this. And whether it might have been much more useful to help children learn about how to deal with having a parent, sibling, relative or friend who is diagnosed with cancer. How do children learn compassion, understanding, empathy, and tolerance for differences and disability? How do children deal with the fear and loss and powerlessness of coping with a loved one who is gravely ill? It seems to me that these are lessons we truly need to be teaching our children, and which they so sorely need in order to cope with the strains and stresses of their own lives, and to grow into effective adults. Their teachers could have found ample springboards for organizing lessons around all these issues simply by talking to the Breast Friends folks themselves about some of the people they've helped.

    Then there are the potential science, history, health, and social studies lessons that were missed.

    Overall, I have to say that reading about this event left me feeling very sad. There were so many missed opportunities here for some genuine and empowering education.

  13. The majority of the public is health illiterate, so expecting an appreciation of all cancers and other health observances is probably asking too much. However, I suspect if there was more cross-disease organizing, as in respective patient advocates across the cancer spectrum coming together for joint events, then the public's perception can begin to change. The loudest voices have always claimed center stage, so it is no wonder that the breast cancer movement has the spotlight. That doesn't mean it has to stay that way. For those who are most active, there is an opportunity to expand the conversation to be more inclusive of other cancers and otehr diseases. I don't think frowning on well-intentioned school kids is the way to go. Maybe a better way is to redirect that interest and passion with sage advice from many of the folks who visit this site.

  14. I work two days a week at a middle school. This October they had a breast cancer awareness week. Just two months out from my mastectomy I watched as young teens and preteens bought and sold bracelets and wore pink tshirts for this awareness effort. Very few people at the school knew of my situation so I was able to just observe and not participate. To me it seemed to trivialize a very serious disease by which I was still greatly affected. It seemed to be a breast cancer celebration rather than a fight against breast cancer. I did ask a few kids what the money was being raised for and other than "breast cancer" they we're not able to give a name of an organization or if the money would be used for research or something else. I will probably talk to administration before next year. I did not feel it was appropriate for the middle school and not because of the word breast.

  15. Not exactly festive.....

    Children's Grief Awareness Day is observed every year on the Thursday before Thanksgiving.

  16. Generally speaking, midddle school students want to be part of the whole...a member of the group. When the entire freaking world is pink in October, how could anyone criticize middle school kids for wanting to be a part of that? And how difficult would it be for middle school teachers to try to explain the conflicting opinions on the use of all this pink and why what they wanted to do might not be a good idea. Even in the TWITTER WORLD,this conversation brings up so much emotion....and splits people into more than 2 sides. But in October, everywhere these kids look, they see their "role models" rolling in it sports heroes, movie icons, or music favs. So naturally, they would think it IS the most important cause to support and that their efforts would be widely applauded and appreciated like those of the adults they look up to. There is no other month like other month that has a color like October, and no other month that garners so much focus from the adult world on any other cause. I would think the important thing would be for the school to have a monthly focus on a different heath issue, a different charitable cause, or a different social a school-wide unit for the entire school it doesn't begin and end with PINK. Let the kids know that breast cancer/breast cancer awareness is an important issue, but certainly not the only one. Open their eyes to the many, many different causes that they can get behind to "give back" and help to make the world a better, healthier, happier place....and that their efforts, no matter where they choose to apply them, can make a difference.

  17. thank you for this.

  18. Thank you all for your really thoughtful and in depth comments. I'm certainly not "frowning" on the children's efforts here - I think it's wonderful that they wanted to do something for a cause. But by the entire school being focussed on the pink breast cancer cause, what lessons were really learned by the kids. That breast cancer is the most important of all diseases. Could there to have been some teachable moments here? Like, could the events have been more inclusive ? Could the monies raised have gone to all needy people dealing with any kind of cancer? Was there an educational evaluation of the cause and the charity? Was there a brainstorming of other ideas?

  19. My daughter was in 7th grade (last year) when I received my dx and surgery. I would have been mortifed had her school taken part in anything like this and we would have had serious discussions and probably would have prohibited participation (though I doubt she would want to).

    There are SO many issues in this world that need attention. Frankly, I am SO BLOODY TIRED of being a symbol. We have plenty of awareness, trust me! It gets so that I can't go to any store (excpet Whole Foods or the Farmers Markets) in October and the radio gets turned off (yes, by my daughter) every time an ad comes on for (name any fundraising event). One of my relatives recently told me he was glad to fly on a plane with pink wings as it made him "think of me."

    I'm not worth thinking about otherwise? I've basically gotten my life back, but not thanks to Komen, Avon or anyone else. The only reason I've gotten it back is by pushing away the pink and reminding my friends and family that there is MORE to life than just breast cancer....much more!

  20. Thank you for this blog post because this is really something that I can relate to. When I first began reading I thought that this was going to just another blog about supporting breast cancer, but it's much more than that. I have created my own blog for my Social Media class about my father's battle with oral and lung cancer. When I search for other blogs to comment on related to cancer, breast cancer blogs come up first and most frequently in every search. I have been bothered in the past about the fact that everyone is always supporting breast cancer but others cancers receive minimal recognition. What makes breast cancer more significant than lung cancer for example? Not all lung cancer patients are/were smokers so that can not be the argument. I also think that it is offensive that promotional products for breast cancer make it seem like a joke. For example the bracelets that say "I heart Boobies", or the bumper stickers that say "Save the ta-tas."

  21. A comment emailed from a reader who blogs at

    Great post. I'm kind of torn on this one. My wife died in August 2010 from breast cancer, and I have a middle school aged son (and a daughter in kindergarten), so I understand why students want to get involved. But I am also very uncomfortable with the pink culture and how all of us are "indoctrinated" by it. I was not happy when my son bought an "I Love Boobies" wristband. I told him why I was against the band, how the whole Boobies thing oversexualizes the issue and has people focus on breasts and women's bodies. I also got that he wanted to do something in honor of his mom. Now he rarely wears it. I'm not sure he understood my position, or cared right now at age 13.
    I think the curriculum should focus on overall cancer issues, if that is part of the science framework. I am not sure how much of all the pink washing hoopla they need right now.
    Hope this adds to the conversation. Thanks,

  22. Reading stories of 15 year old girls with breast cancer is enough for me to say this is okay! Plus that 1st one is all about finances. 2nd one all about action; I am sorry think both our great! I tend to focus on both; finances, & ridding toxins, hormones/xenoestrogens in our environment, lifestyle changes etc.

    Yes, the 1st school went overboard this year, but went to a great cause. Remember these were children who initiated this, not adults...they may have added the pink fluff, but am assuming this was not a requirement for all students, that they were not punished it not attending.

    My niece has an event every year at her school. I almost wasn't invited beacause they know I am picky about pink, but went and am glad I did, to have a gym full of kids shouting for you and to rid the disease. I was the youngest standing there with my niece, but other women attended. the speaker and facilitator of this was diagnosed at 24, I actually was offended she didn't even refer to breasts..kept sating know your body, which is right, but know your breasts would have been okay with me. I actually wanted to take the microphone away and give some facts...but of course did not

    Again i see nothin wrong with the 2nd story either focusing on 2 major cancers that affect persons in young adulthood is important. Prevention & action is great, not a sure thing not to get cancer, but having a healthy lifestyle is a great thing to encourage in our kids. Hopefully they are obtaining current research...comes out daily, and are using things like teens turning green, safe cosmetics act, & The Breast Cancer Fund's State of the evidence. there are documents scientific and not about lifestyly/foods/toxins etc pertaining to cancer everyday I see them. Laura

  23. This comment received via email and reposted here:

    I feel very uncomfortable about this event. Firstly, I doubt very much that the student body had much idea about what they were promoting . Perhaps the bracelets and the hand dyed pink shirts and the in-school hijinks were fun but why choose one serious disease above any other and Gods knows there are plenty of them. Certainly good,age appropriate information on cancer should be included in the curriculum together with relevant facts about other diseases but staging a promotional event with accompanying media coverage - no very tacky and of little educational value. My experience of in-school fundraising for breast cancer research has been attendance at one or two morning teas for interested parents. No I dont like the sound of this event at all. Just ensure students receive good, informed education and not a feast of pink frippery.......!!!!

  24. I totally understand your concerns... I'm a teacher in a large High School and we do a cancer awareness "pink out" day in October. I think it's a good thing though. There are so many kids who have parents and family members struggling with breast cancer, it gives them an opportunity to voice their fears and see support. We also have other awareness days... and don't only concentrate on Breast Cancer. Here's the other thing.. kids are largely self-centered... not on purpose, it's just an ego-centric world when they are younger because of cognitive development. ANYTHING that makes them look outside of themselves and empathize with other's struggles is a good thing. By learning about breast cancer they open themselves to understanding about other diseases... it's not enough, but it's not a bad step toward garnering support for lots of major illnesses. I certainly think the "pink movement" made it easier for me to build awareness about my rare cancer (carcinoid) at the teen level...

  25. Hey Rach!
    Your comments and the article really got me thinking about what my boys are being presented with in school about BC or other cancer/ diseases and how they feel about it.I got two very different answers which I guess just underscores the difficulty in approaching the subject in school.(Mind you, my boys are in catholic school)
    My pensive, adult-like, 13 year old said that he's only been presented with "basic" infomation about cancer and other diseases. He feels that it isn't fair to concentrate on just one illness. He is very concerned that there is no open discussion about this serious subject in school.He and many of his peers have lost someone close to them because of these horrible illnesses and he thinks it would help. He also feels that more education on the diseases themselves is needed and ways to try to remain healthy.
    My generally passive 15 year old said that he feels he knows, and has been presented with, "very little" in school. He says that they usually make a big deal about a disease (or do a fund-raiser) when someone in school gets it. He got very upset over the fuss made over breast cancer and this is what he said: " The women are getting the attention because they are girls and it's popular to have it. Why not prostate cancer? Because it's a guy disease! My friends just think it's cool to wear the boobies bracelet." WHOA! Totally didn't expect that! He went on to say that he doesn't want to learn about such diseases, he feels it could be offered as an elective. He said he would like to learn how to be healthy and deal with disease only if it shows up.
    Not sure if this helps or complicates this particular dialog but I am thankful for the opportunity to find out what my boys think. Two very different points of view but I feel as a parent I need to fill in those empty blanks (not the school).

  26. What an interesting post.
    I actually remember as a kid trying on different causes for size.
    Recently a young teen football player in my area decided to wear pink shoes for BC awareness. I realize this probably rubs some of you the wrong way, but I was really touched by it.
    Since I am a public person with BC he reached out to me on facebook and was very sweet about it.
    Listen I think kids in Haiti or any other child related cause might be the best fit, but someone in that school has a mom with bc.
    At the end of the day it's no fun having a disease that lacks attention either.

  27. Good. Nice to know such awareness being spread. It will help so many people. Nice sharing and keep posting.


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