Creating Authentic Representation of Breast Cancer in Images

There’s more to breast cancer than a pink ribbon. Learn what really goes into capturing true-to-life images of breast cancer patients and survivors.

Representing breast cancer in visual imagery is more than popping a pink ribbon on a female-identifying model. Last month was National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a month where pink images, products, and the signature pink ribbon are used to raise awareness for what is the most common cancer among women worldwide, and the second-most common cancer overall. In real facts, in 2020 alone, 27,400 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer.

Raising awareness is great—in theory. But, all this sea of pink has led to a rise of pinkwashing, a term used to describe the commodification of breast cancer. When it comes to breast cancer support, “Pinktober” often misses the mark. 

More than a Pink RibbonYou can still represent breast cancer in visuals without the use of pink. Image by Nattakorn_Maneerat.

Breast Cancer Is Not Just a “Caucasian Woman” Cancer

That’s not all. Breast cancer does not affect all people equally, although primarily in visual imagery you typically see caucasian-passing female models. Studies show that Black women are 43 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than white women. And what about men who are diagnosed with breast cancer? Too often images representing breast cancer awareness month exclude the very people who truly experience the disease. So when it comes to images that represent breast cancer care, how do you get it right? 

In this article, we’re sharing a few tips on how you can more accurately and responsibly represent breast cancer in visual imagery. While October may be the month of awareness for breast cancer, breast cancer in actuality is a disease that has no month. It has no time, no age, and no gender. Use these tips to consider the visuals you use to represent breast cancer.

Breast Cancer in Black WomenBreast cancer is not a one-size-fits-all type of disease. Image by RStollner.

Avoid Pink and Pinkwashing

As defined by the Breast Cancer Consortium, pinkwashing is a term used to describe the lack of transparency around fundraising that surrounds Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In October, you can buy pink-branded potato chips, lipstick, yogurt, coffee, and so on. (An oil company even created a pink fracking drill bit a few years ago.) 

More specifically pinkwashing refers to more than the exploitation of the pink ribbon for profit and good public relations. The term includes promoting and selling pink products that are actually linked to the disease, such as certain cosmetics where the exposure to parabens and phthalates can actually increase breast cancer risk. (These chemicals are toxic to the body and put women at risk because they imitate estrogen, throwing off the body’s natural hormonal balance.)

Avoid PinkwashingBreast cancer is more than a pink ribbon. Image by Solid photos.

While pink is synonymous with breast cancer awareness month, it promotes a narrow perspective on the cause, one that is met more with criticism and hypocrisy than with affection and acclaim. 

Equality in Breast Cancer Care

Images that raise awareness for breast cancer often show a specific type of woman: white, middle class, and urban.

The reality is that breast cancer affects underserved populations. Again, Black women are 43 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than their white counterparts. People living in rural areas, the LBGTQ+ community, the elderly, and young women also struggle to access or receive breast cancer care—and therefore aren’t represented in images that promote breast cancer awareness. Breast cancer in men is rare, as less than 1% of all breast cancer occurs in men. However, it is vastly underrepresented in the media too. 

Equality in Breast Cancer CareBlack women are significantly affected by breast cancer and need proper representation in visual imagery. Editorial Image by Anthony Correia.

More than Breasts

Images of breast cancer frequently focus on women’s bodies, specifically the breasts, to the point where some argue this is an objectification of the disease. But breast cancer is a full-body disease. It affects not only breasts, but skin and hair as well. It can can also contribute to weight loss, scarring, and more. When it comes to breast cancer care, don’t just rely on images of breasts to tell the story of this disease. 

Breast Cancer: Showing the Full Story

“Showing models with fake scars, beautiful bodies, and breasts with the strap so perfectly dangling from her shoulder. That’s not what breast cancer is. It’s CTs, surgeries, amputations, biopsies, MRIs, X-rays, radiation, chemo, IVs, blood tests, fear, worry, hate, anger, confusion, sadness, loneliness, medications, check-ups, anxiety, depression, insomnia, pain,” one breast cancer survivor writes.

Breast cancer is also about all the other aspects of medical care: doctor’s appointments, counseling, bills, insurance paperwork, and of course, the love and support from family and friends. 

The Full Story of Breast CancerDepict the long-term treatment and prevention of breast cancer. Image by LStockStudio.

From Prevention to Treatment

Breast cancer imagery often shows survivors or women currently in treatment. But like many other cancers, the prevention of the disease is incredibly important. The five-year survival rate among women with breast cancer that hasn’t spread or metastasized is nearly 99 percent.

So what do prevention and early detection look like? Besides screening and mammograms, one of the American Cancer Society’s goals is to better promote women’s health. Things like exercise, reducing obesity rates, and limiting alcohol intake are all shown to combat breast cancer.

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Continue your visual education here: 

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