Stigmas Of Breast Cancer Focus On "Saving Breasts," But What About Saving A Woman's Life?

by Caroline Burke

Betsy Nilan is tired of all those "save the boobs" movements. In fact, as the president and CEO of the Get In Touch Foundation, a non-profit aimed at providing breast health initiatives to young women, she can’t stand any message that chooses to focus on women's breasts alone. Having lost her mother, Mary Ann Wasil, the founder of the Get In Touch Foundation, to a long and courageous battle with stage four metastatic breast cancer a little over a year ago, Nilan has both personal and professional experience when it comes to the stigmas of breast cancer. But there's one stigma in particular that she's looking to change above all: the idea that breast health education efforts should be marketed toward saving a woman's breasts, rather than a woman's actual life.

There is a long and storied history of the overt sexualization of breast cancer, and the idea that turning the disease into something "sexy" will grab people's attention faster than legitimate facts and figures. "Save the Ta-Ta's, Save Women?," a Huffington Post blog written by Jessica Holmes, aptly chronicles this history, from the Keep a Breast Foundation's "I heart boobies!" mantra, to a PSA by Rethink Breast Cancer that features a woman in a bikini walking around a pool.

M.J. DeCoteau, the founder of Rethink Breast Cancer, defended the promo as a means to reach young people, telling ABC News in 2009,

Young people are picking up pamphlets with a 65-year-old woman on the cover and probably tossing them out. We're really about creating a bold way of communicating the message in a fun way that's going to stop them in their tracks. We're hoping that they get the take-away message that is to be breast aware.

Additionally, DeCoteau explains Rethink Breast Cancer's approach in an email to Elite Daily as one that includes "ground-breaking projects and programs to address all aspects of the breast cancer experience." She continues,

We are known for a bold, creative approach and we are a leading authority in breast cancer for young women. Because we serve a broad audience of young people for fundraising and breast health education, as well as a niche audience of young women going through breast cancer, being “bold” takes on a different tone and approach depending on the audience.”

The message was certainly bold, to say the least, and garnered major backlash. But Rethink Breast Cancer isn't the only foundation trying to find new ways to deliver this information. One such organization, Fighting 4 The Tatas, has the following mission statement:

Our Mission is to bring awareness to Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) the most aggressive, fast growing and lethal type of breast cancer. We offer dignity by providing temporary financial support to defray some cost with Utility bills while undergoing breast cancer treatments. Promote breast health and wellness through educational and emotional help for women, men and their families before, during and after breast cancer treatment.

Elite Daily reached out to Fighting 4 The Tatas for comment on the ongoing efforts by people like Nilan to strip breast health efforts of all sexual undertones, but did not hear back by time of publication.

To be clear, these organizations are pursuing a remarkable and commendable goal in raising awareness around breast cancer. But when organizations emphasize saving bodily organs over lives in their entirety, the message can become blurry.

This raises an obvious, but important question: Pushing all marketing and advertising efforts aside, what is the most effective and respectful way to educate women about breast health and cancer awareness?

As Holmes pointed out, the United States has relentlessly marketed breast cancer as the "sexy" disease.

And despite the consistent outcry against campaigns that sexualize something so life-threatening, the "sexy" advertising for breast cancer and awareness just keeps coming.

The question Nilan wants to raise, however, is how breast health educators and foundations are going to better advertise and brand the battle against breast cancer, and whether it's more effective to do so by focusing on "saving the boobies," or on teaching young women to understand breast health as a way to save their lives.

Nilan is intent on replacing the "save the breasts" stigma with a renewed emphasis on breast health awareness. She's so intent on this that she dyed her hair pink, the official color of breast cancer awareness. Why? Because it starts a dialogue, she tells Elite Daily in an exclusive interview, which, she believes, is the beginning of any forward movement.

The forward movement she's looking for, specifically, is more consensus and recognition over this simple fact: Breast health and cancer awareness shouldn't be about saving your breasts, or creating a false, sexualized notion of womanhood that equates external body parts with internal femininity. Instead, efforts and outreach surrounding breast cancer awareness should be focused on saving lives in their entirety.

It's not about the ta-tas. It's about the body AND the actual women attached to them.

Unlike most of us, Nilan learned to make this important distinction at a young age. She explains to Elite Daily what happened when she came home at the age of 13 wearing a "Save the ta-tas" shirt — an item of clothing her mother was distraught to see her wearing:

My mom was so upset. I thought I was showing support, but instead had done the opposite. She just had a double mastectomy — both breasts removed. She would often say to me, "Save the ta-tas? No, save my life!"

Let's make one thing clear here: The Get In Touch Foundation is not a breast cancer foundation in any sense. Rather, it’s a breast health foundation, a distinction that Nilan is working hard to make clear as she fights for room in an incredibly crowded section of the nonprofit world. The foundation's goal is not to raise money for breast cancer research, but rather to provide breast health education and initiatives to young women across the globe.

There are, of course, many foundations doing excellent work in the fields of breast cancer prevention and awareness. For example, the National Breast Cancer Foundation has a breast health education program available, which includes pamphlets and training exercises to teach women about proper breast health.

What's special about Get In Touch, though, is the foundation's helpful tool, the Daisy Wheel, which provides young women with a tangible and approachable strategy for taking care of their breasts. It's designed specifically to help them understand their bodies so that they can be their own advocates, and speak up at the first warning sign.

The Daisy Wheel provides eight tips for how to give yourself a proper breast exam, from the type of circular movement that will allow you to feel lumps, to the three different types of pressure you should apply with your fingers, to the area you should be checking every time you perform an exam.

The Daisy Wheel is free for all healthcare providers and school nurses. They can be purchased by anyone else for $5 each on the Get In Touch website, and they also come in packages of 25 for $125. School nurses can inquire about a Daisy Wheel shipment through the school nurse portal on the Get In Touch website.

It can be challenging when you're in adolescence to feel confident and in control of your body. It's this challenge in particular that Nilan is working to break down.

She tells Elite Daily,

I am 26 and have been doing breast self-exams since I was 13. I know what that embarrassment felt like firsthand, when I was flat as a board! But my mom made me feel totally comfortable with understanding my body, and that's a message we want to get across: understanding your body should be empowering.

Nilan's point is profound. Understanding our bodies is not only emotionally empowering, but medically empowering, as well. According to Cancer Research UK, more than 90 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer at the earliest stage survive their disease for at least five years. In comparison, only 15 percent of women survive for at least five years if they are diagnosed at the worst stage of the disease.

Moreover, according to, 85 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of it, which is just one of many reasons why women are so often caught off-guard when they receive the diagnosis. So, to say the least, early detection and diagnosis are, quite literally, life-saving.

While the Daisy Wheel is already being used by school nurses in all 50 states in the U.S. as well as 34 other countries around the world, Get In Touch is printing a record 1 million Daisy Wheels this October. The Daisy Wheels will soon be sent to school nurses both globally and nationally.

As for Nilan, she's currently spending her days working to push past the "save the boobies" stigma and into the work of giving young women the tools to save their own lives.

She's hard at work with a website revamp for Get In Touch, as well as the creation of a young professionals board in New York City, and a collaboration with Guess Fashion, wherein a portion of the proceeds from a special edition watch and certain eyewear will go directly to the cause.

Sadly, we all know there's no cure for breast cancer as of right now. Until there is, the best thing young women can do is be as proactive as possible with their health.

So the next time you see an advertisement that prioritizes breast survival over body survival, consider opening up a dialogue with that person about how we want to shape our conversations around women's bodies and health. Acknowledge the power that comes with knowing your body better than anyone, and appreciate that that power is something you simply can't replace.