Fear Mongering: the use of fear to influence the opinions and actions of others towards some specific end. The feared object or subject is sometimes exaggerated. Fear mongering often involves repetition to reinforce the intended effects of this tactic. It is a key emotional dimension of the breast cancer brand.

See also: Language; Breast Cancer Brand

While it is not the leading cause of death for women, breast cancer is a leading cause of fear. In his book Unnatural History: Breast Cancer and American Society Dr. Robert Aronowitz of the University of Pennsylvania explains why there is such a huge gap between social understandings of breast cancer and its biological effects: “Fear of breast cancer has too often been oversold.”

fearWomen are ten times more likely to die from heart disease than from breast cancer, and they are also more likely to die from cancers of the respiratory and digestive systems than they are from breast cancer. Yet widespread statistics seem to indicate that breast cancer is almost inevitable, and research studies that do not clearly explain what risk really means give the impression that almost anything and everything will contribute to the development of breast cancer.

Breast cancer advertisements use fear-mongering to garner support for the cause, sell products, impel some kind of behavior, and raise funds.

Additional Resource: “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things” by Barry Glassner (Basic Books, 2000).

Example 1, Check Yourself before its too late

The mock advertisement for a Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF) campaign found on Pinterest uses ominous coloring to bring attention to the potentially lethal danger of one’s breasts. The skeleton beneath the skin glows red against a corpse-like body. Since the image was posted on Pinterest it may not have run as an official print advertisement for BCRF. However, the message fits the general fear-mongering framework prevalent in pink ribbon culture.

It also sends an incorrect impression about the role of breast self exam in saving lives from breast cancer. Studies have found that Breast Self Exam (BSE) does not result in finding breast cancers early, nor does it decrease mortality due to breast cancer. The risk of breast cancer increases with age and average age at diagnosis is 61, so the woman in the advertisement does not represent the typical case. Five percent of breast cancer cases occur in women under age 40. [See also: Misinformation.]

“Sun Soy,” Self October (2002): 147.

Example 2, Reasons to Fight

Sun Soy, an occasional sponsor of Komen Race events, uses sporting imagery to advertise its organic, non-dairy soy milk. A 2002 advertisement during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month portrays a fit woman in a racing jersey looking down with a pensive expression.

A large number on her racing bib reads: “203,500.”

Small text surrounds the number: “Because this year alone there will be 203,500 more reasons to fight breast cancer.”

The bib number, resembling a racing number, signifies the number of new breast cancer cases predicted for the current year.

The average reader may not know precisely that the American Cancer Society estimated 203,500 new cases of breast cancer in 2002, but it sounds right. The echo of such statistics across breast cancer representations grants authority to the statistic even as it reinforces fear and uncertainty about who these women will be.

Contrasting the image of a young, healthy, and vibrant woman with frightening statistics emphasizes the association of fear, for even she is vulnerable to “this terrible disease.”

The ad uses fighting words (war metaphor) to incite urgent, aggressive action. Only the enemy is one’s own body.

Breast Cancer Research Foundation, “Nobody is Safe. Yet.” Self October (1994): 100.

Example 3, No body is safe

Another advertisement for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation uses a porous gray ribbon to denote the sinister nature of breast cancer. The permeable aspect of the ribbon indicates vulnerability and ambiguity, while bold, large text reiterates the message that, “Nobody is Safe. Yet.” This attention-grabbing statement is a call for protection while it affirms the unknown future of breast cancer. Accompanying statistics reveal the scope of the problem: “One in nine women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime.”

Note: In 1994, “1 in 9” was the probability that a woman would be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. That statistic is now “1 in8.” Rather than a call to be afraid the increase in incidence suggests that something is contributing to the widespread increase in breast cancer in the population.

Rather than encouraging the reader to think about what may be causing widespread incidence of cancer, the advertisement uses fear to urge the reader to take a different kind of action: “Join us in the fight against breast cancer.”

The fight against breast cancer has been parlayed into fundraising opportunities for people serious about stopping the epidemic as well as those who capitalize on the public’s fear of the disease.

In some cases the proceeds from donations and net profits from purchases do go to breast cancer organizations or to notable cancer centers for research. But fear-mongering for the cause contributes to stress, increased medical and personal surveillance, and unnecessary procedures including biopsies, treatments, and prophylactic mastectomies, while diverting attention from other pressing health issues.

Anything But Real Emotions

The Angry Breast Cancer Survivors. Image Source: http://www2.macleans.ca/2008/11/20/the-angry-breast-cancer-survivors/

Cancer experiences clearly elicit a wide range of emotions on a personal level. Hope, fear, relief, uncertainty, vulnerability, anxiousness, disgust, despair, hopelessness, loneliness, anger. At a cultural level some emotions are valued and others discouraged. Hope is widely embraced in cancer culture, marketed as a solution to the pain of cancer and sometimes a healing modality. Fear is something used to elicit support for the cause and to encourage specific behaviors. Anger, however, is usually suppressed. Its transformative potential is dangerous to the status quo. When people get angry, they might act differently.

A prominent blogger in the breast cancer community, Nancy Stordahl, wrote about the usefulness of anger for individuals and society. In “It’s OK to Feel Your Anger,” she acknowledges that she has experienced anger and shares the numerous and specific occasions that elicited response.

When I first received the phone call from the doctor who gave me my diagnosis last spring, I was shocked and then angry. He delivered the news matter-of-factly as if letting me know I had an ear infection or strep throat.

I was angry cancer chose me. I was angry the disease of breast cancer still existed. I was angry for not taking better care of myself. I was angry at my mother for not being here when I needed her the most and I was angry that she didn’t get cancer until she was 74. I was angry to get cancer at my age, way too young in my mind, as if getting cancer at a later age is better. It’s not. I was angry for putting my family in this predicament, a place they didn’t deserve to be. I was angry for losing control of my health and my life. I was angry at cancer for interrupting the smoothness of my life, for changing its course, for just butting in where it did not belong. I was angry for these and lots of other reasons too.

These days what makes me angry about cancer is hearing news like yet another fellow blogger was diagnosed with mets last week. And another friend, also with mets, was hospitalized and still another recently ended up in ICU with chemo complications. I get angry when I hear over and over again only 5% of dollars donated to organizations proclaiming to fight cancer is spent on research and less than 2% on metastatic cancer research. I get angry when the focus continues to be on awareness and pink ribbon campaigns and I get frustrated when well-meaning people don’t take time to question. I get angry when people I know and people I don’t know keep dying from cancer.

I get angry when so much potential on so many fronts is lost.

The occasions and situations that evoked anger for Nancy are not unjustified. Loss, callousness, pain, profiteering, ignorance, injustice. All valid reasons to get angry. She explains further why it is important to process the anger in constructive ways.

Anger is like a pot of boiling water on the stove.

The water starts off at a slow simmer; gentle bubbles gurgling, creating just a little heat and steam. As the temperature builds, it becomes hotter, more intense, then dangerous as it reaches its boiling point with scalding water and vaporizing steam, both capable of causing bodily harm. If you allow the boiling to continue, eventually the water disappears and you end up with nothing but an empty, burnt ill-smelling pot.

Anger too can simmer, intensify and finally boil over if you try to keep it in or covered up. Just like the “boiled out” pot on the stove, concealed or covered-up anger can eventually leave you feeling empty, burned out and accomplishing little.

The trick is to allow yourself to feel all your emotions, even anger.

Learn to use your anger to fight back in your own way, not the way somebody tells you to. Properly channeled anger can be a motivator or call to action. If you let yourself feel the anger, harness it and use it to accomplish something, you have then successfully utilized its energy for something constructive.

As Nancy suggests, suppressing anger to placate the demands of pink ribbon culture can leave people feeling burnt out and empty, while also stifling their ability to act in authentic and constructive ways. Since expressions of anger are not welcomed in the culture, doing so requires breaking some rules. Not talking about anger is rule #1.

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