“The Tyranny of Cheerfulness”


This weekend I finally got around to watching Pink Ribbons, Inc, which if you’re a fan of my blog I highly recommend you watch. The documentary, released in 2011, is just as relevant now as it was then (can you believe 2011 was already six years ago, what!?), as it covers a wide breadth of topics pertaining to what some consider to be the commercialization of breast cancer.

There’s so much content within this one film to deep-dive into all of it in one sitting, so one piece of the documentary I want to highlight in this post is the disconnect between the optimistic messages about hope and optimism that surround the breast cancer awareness movement, and the women that feel alienated from these messages.

The documentary hones in on a support group for women suffering from stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. Based in Austin, Texas, there are less than ten participants in the group. They huddle around a couch to face the camera with slightly dulled facial expressions. None of them are wearing pink ribbons.

“There are many few of these stage IV groups in the US, and that’s just a tragedy, because you go to a regular breast cancer support group and you’re the angel of death, you know. You’re the elephant in the room, and they’re learning to live, and you’re learning to die” confesses one of the women in the support group, with an undeniable grimmace spread on her face.

The women in the group barely crack a smile. As they share their stories throughout the documentary, it’s clear through their narratives that they’ve lost hope about their condition, and can only live from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, under a constant fear that their time is almost certainly limited.

However, Nancy Brinker, Founder of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, insists in the documentary that sentiments of hopelessness will not lead to effective awareness campaigns.

“When you lead from only anger, you do not include or incent people to be part of a mission. If people feel there is no hope, they will not participate long-term, they will feel they’re in an endless fight” she unequivocally states.

But wait, really? Isn’t that type of message ignoring many women’s struggle? Because for many women, it’s not a question of if they feel no hope, but when they lose hope. So then, how could breast cancer advocacy groups perhaps better reach those women who no longer feel hope? It’s simple — acknowledge their hopelessness exists.

Another woman from the stage IV breast cancer support group had this to say about the pink-ribbon based breast cancer awareness movement:

“As much as I know that people…really do have good intentions with the pink ribbon, however maybe that’s all they’re seeing is a pink ribbon. I want them to see women, I want them to see lives, I want them to see people that are hurting and people that are living with stage 4 breast cancer. You know we’re living, we’re human beings, we’re not just little pink ribbon.”

Similarly, Dr. Samantha King, who wrote the book Breast Cancer, Inc that this documentary is named after, had this to say:

“What I found in my research is that many women actually feel alienated by the overly optimistic approach, they feel like they can’t have their feelings of anger or despair or hopelessness and feel like a legitimate person with breast cancer, that in order to be a survivor you must maintain this optimistic outlook and participate in what I call the ‘tyranny of cheerfulness.'”

There shouldn’t be doubt that we’ve already successfully alienated women that are in their darkest days, women that are isolated from the bubbly optimistic messages that we accept as the singular message to unite women suffering from breast cancer. In particular, the women that suffer from stage IV breast cancer are like the dark side of the moon in the breast cancer awareness movement — they are nearly invisible, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. If we want to have breast cancer awareness be more inclusive, we can’t ignore these women. And I will make damn sure we don’t forget them.

According to the bio for Nancy Brinker and he work for the Susan Komen Foundation, “her journey began with a simple promise to her dying sister, Susan G. Komen, that she would do everything possible to end the shame, pain, fear and hopelessness caused by this disease.” To end this post, I suppose I’d like to leave you all with this thought. The Susan Komen Foundation is not going away any time soon, so if their longevity seems imminent, what do they have to lose by accepting that hopelessness is just part of the story of suffering from breast cancer? Why are we trying to convince ourselves of a lie?  If we are to really move forward raising awareness about this disease, and ending shame surrounding its diagnosis, why can’t we acknowledge this pain women face? If we don’t make sense of the suffering women experience from this disease, there’s only so much optimism to be had in the movement.

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