It’a All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses… a Breast

So the other day on Facebook, I saw that my friend “Amanda” was going to Costa Rica for 11 months. I congratulated her in the comments section. The next day, “Jodie” wrote that she was moving to London for two years, and some time later “Kris” said she’d be in the Dominican Republic for three months.

I was happy for them, but was also a little…daunted. Here I was, glued to my day job, trying to write, addicted to Bejeweled Blitz even as I daydream about having a more meaningful life—doing more, being better somehow. And here my friends were actually doing it. Their statuses didn’t provide details, but I imagined: Saving the rainforest? Writing novels? Building houses for orphans?

And then I got a direct message from Amanda saying, “I’m not really going to Costa Rica.” She forwarded a message that explained it all.  It began:

It’s that time of year again…support of breast cancer awareness!

–and then went on to describe the “game” –a self-professed follow up the classic “what color is you bra” meme of 2010, and others that followed—which would build solidarity among women and show the world what we could accomplish with just our Facebook statuses.

For the 2013 version, I should select a place (from a list) according to the month I was born, and then match the day I was born to a number of months so that,

 If your birthday is 21st January, YOUR STATUS SHOULD READ: “I am going to Mexico for 21 months.

I should then forward these secret instructions only to my girlfriends, and not tell any males what the status means. And finally, the message implored:

Please do it, don’t be a spoil sport, show your awareness!!!

Oh. So no rainforests, no novels. Maybe I should feel relieved. They were just playing a game.  A game that I could play too.  In fact, a game I needed to play, because even if I’m an underachieving flash-game addict, at least I’m not a spoil sport. Spoil sports are the worst, aren’t they?  Ugh.

If I were a spoil sport, which I’m not, or if I were the type of person to confront my friends in their comment boxes, their direct mail boxes, or (inconceivably) in person, which I also am not though I sometimes wish I was, here are a few points I might make:

First, there is no one left—at least among your mostly American, middle-class, female Facebook-using friends—who is unaware of breast cancer. There was a time when raising awareness about breast cancer was important. And it was fun to be part of that. But it’s over now. Breast cancer’s existence, unlike God’s, is not in dispute. But you already understand this, right? Because you use the awkward phrase “support of breast cancer awareness!” Really? “Yeah, we’re showing our support for the fact that we’re already aware of breast cancer, and, uh, breast cancer awareness, yay!” Be embarrassed.

Secondly, if there were anyone left on the Facebook-earth unaware of breast cancer, it might be a man. Why create an awareness meme that excludes half the population? Men have sisters, daughters, mothers, girlfriends and wives.  Men can get breast cancer too.

Thirdly…the spoil sport thing. At the level of intentionality, this is worse than the inane cancer awareness thing. Emotionally bullying your friends into sharing your crappy meme or post by linking said crappy material to a cause is vile and wrong. Stop inferring that your friends are spoil sports. Stop accusing them of “not really caring enough” or “not being courageous enough” about autism or depression or whatever to click a share button. Stop appropriating my cancer to push other people around. Just. Stop. Also—and I’m telling you this as a favor—you’re alienating your friends, even if they can’t bring themselves to tell you.

However, if you really care about breast cancer, there is a part for you to play. Cancer still needs awareness—but it needs awareness of its complexities. There are a lot of choices we have to make as patrons, as consumers, as advocates for our own health: from whether to get a mammogram to which pink-clad products we should or shouldn’t buy to what political policies we should support.  None of these are simple issues and tackling them isn’t exactly “fun.” Trying to keep up with all the information out there is like trying to navigate that health insurance paperwork that never stops coming.  So for me, having friends help with the ongoing research by posting articles or factoids is actually helpful. Even if it sparks discussion. Even if that discussion gets heated. There is value in building solidarity around women’s issues, but I’ll feel greater solidarity with women who strive to think critically than those who insist on continuing to treat breast cancer like a sorority event. I think we can do more, be better.

(Barrington is a two-time cancer veteran. Neither time was breast cancer, though many of her friends assume that it was because AWARENESS.)