Saturday, October 10, 2015

How to make a difference in three easy steps.

 I'm not a big fan of pink fluff.  And by "not a big fan" I mean - the entire month of Pinktober I carry around my own soap box and mutter a steady stream of pink-centric obscenities ala Yosemite Sam.
Heather Caro just spotted a pink ribbon display at the
grocery store.

I'm sure I'm a real treat to be around.

There are just so many examples of pink ribbon commercialism being used to exploit well-meaning consumers, I find myself on an advocacy warpath for the entire month.

But as exhausting and frustrating as it can be to fight the "system" - giving up is not an option.  Because as pink ribbon merchandise continues to sell like hot cakes and politicians continue to underfund research - people I love are diagnosed and my friends continue to die of this disease.

Pink is not a cure.  And as long as I am able to  work toward real progress against this disease (less caustic treatments, increased research funding, regulation on the use of pink ribbons) I will do so.  Lucky for me - and the many advocacy voices who carry around soap boxes of their own - we are not alone in this.

I am so proud of the many, many people who contact me with ridiculous pink ribbon products, comment on Facebook or speak up when they see the audacious way this disease is being exploited for financial gain. There is no higher compliment I can receive than "I hear your voice each time I see a pink ribbon" - and I hear that a lot.  Thank you for standing beside me in the trenches, for listening and especially for being brave enough to speak up.

We are making a difference in perhaps the only way possible - one person at a time.

So, in honor of my third Pinktober after my breast cancer diagnosis in 2012, I'd like to share an excerpt my Tedx speech - Think Beyond Pink.  Someday I hope these words will no longer be necessary.  But I am grateful for each year I am able to be here to work toward bringing meaningful awareness to this disease - and away from the fluff.


Breast cancer has become the shopping disease because altruism sells and marketing gurus know that.  And while people do have the ability to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others - you won't find it in a bucket of chicken.  In fact, products that provide a false or overinflated sense of contribution may be doing more harm than good.

What I've learned is, there are no regulations on the use of the almighty pink ribbon.  In fact, many pink-ribbon-wielding products contain actual known carcinogens.  And donations provided to cancer causes are often either limited, unstated or capped.  Which means despite the onslaught of Pinktober breast cancer "awareness" campaigns, there is precious little progress being made towards preventing
This pink ribbon placement is oddly appropriate.
or curing breast cancer.

It turns out - awareness - just isn't enough.  Awareness won't even get us out of the driveway on the journey to find a cure.  And if we are to continue to make gains against this disease, it will require a more mindful and intentional approach.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, each day we have laid out before us a great feast of information.  Every dish imaginable is available at our fingertips 24/7.  But the catch is, there is so much out there and most of us lead such busy lives we only have time to lick the frosting from a single cupcake.

And there is very little substance in frosting.

But making a difference is possible - and it's easier than you'd think.  And because, thankfully, it doesn't take a personal health crisis to bring about real change - I'd like to share with you some of the ways I've learned to practice more mindful philanthropy.

1.  Question Everything

This is a big one.  And if there is one take-home message to glean from my time with you, let it be this:  

Teach yourself to ask questions.

Apparently breast cancer is finger-licking good.
Learn to read the fine print whether purchasing a product or participating in an event.  Ask:  Who profits from this, and how?  Will people benefit directly or with the money raised be funneled into expensive marketing campaigns or administrative wages?

And perhaps most importantly - learn to question yourself.  Before you buy in to a request, analyze your own intentions.  Will posting a "no-makeup selfie" spread knowledge or raise money?  If you find yourself participating out of vanity or social-media induced peer pressure, how - exactly - this that help others?

And if you can't find the answers to those questions, don't be afraid to walk away.  Or keep scrolling.  

If we are to move beyond awareness - for any cause - we need depth, we need buy in, but we don't need more frosting.

2.  Dig Deep

I'd like to say I found my cause, though in reality, it found me.  But perhaps that's the way it should be.  Perhaps connecting deeply with an experience is the only way to discover where you can do the most good - no matter how painful that process may be.

After my diagnosis there were people in our lives who slipped away once the harsh realities of my illness set in.  But there were many others who chose to stand beside me in the trenches.  The bond we share today transcends any I have ever known.

Though surgeries left me marred and forever altered, I chose to fill the scars that laced my chest with color as I began work on a mastectomy tattoo.  The process - on my own terms this time - helped me
Altruism sells - and marketing gurus know that.
to reclaim some of what was taken and transform the grit to grace once again.  Through it all, I documented my journey on a blog that started out as cheap therapy but eventually reached thousands of people from around the world.  By simply sharing my story I was able to inspire mammograms, genetic testing and an honest look into the state of our health care system from both sides of the hospital bed. We each have unique stories and perspectives others may benefit from.  And though I cannot tell you what your message should be, I can tell you it is already within you.

Meaningful philanthropy should be more about who you are as an individual - and not just a bandwagon to jump on. We can make a real and tangible difference in the lives of others if we take the time and effort to be intentional about it.  And though the real issues are not always convenient - or even pretty - they will reach others more deeply than any ribbon or bucket of ice ever could.

So don't be afraid to tell your story.  You never know whom you may reach through the telling.  And it may just set you free.

3.  Be the Change.

The truth is, pink - the color - won't save me or anyone else.  Pink won't help pay my medical bills or limit the use of carcinogens in our environment.  It can't help bring about new, less caustic treatments or provide the efficient cancer detection methods we so desperately need.

Pink can't do that.  But I can.

I can volunteer.  I can tell my story.  I can speak up when I see that from my vantage point - we have jumped the track with our awareness campaigns.  I know that we can do better.  But it's up to all of us to make sure that happens.

At the end of the day, no matter what your cause or which colored ribbons you stand behind,
impactwill only be as powerful as what you put into it.  Real progress can only be made through choosing to partake in more of the "meat and potatoes" of the big issues and less of the frosting.  So as you peruse the ribbon bedecked merchandise this Pinktober and beyond - please - read the fine print, ask questions and choose to be more involved.

With more than 40,000 deaths attributed to breast cancer in the US each year, we can't afford to waste a single penny on more pink coffee mugs.

And for those of you who enjoy wearing pink - by all means - continue doing so.  Each of us must find our own way to survive this disease, and if pink provides a rallying cry or gives strength in any way then it certainly has its place.  But I urge you - please do so responsibly.

As for me - I'm going to sit this one out.  Pink's just not my color.