The dawn of it was ‘LIKE THIS IF YOU HATE CANCER!’ pictures. Then came the ascent of those Facebook status games, where women – and only women – were expected to post seemingly esoteric statuses such as ‘I like it on the floor!’ as part of word-of-mouth (or, more accurately, Facebook message) games, allegedly intended to raise awareness of breast cancer. And now the unofficial awareness campaign du jour is a spate of ‘make-up free selfies’ on Facebook and Twitter; that is, the selfie reappropriated as a two-click crusade for awareness, replete with ‘cancerawareness’ hashtag.
All trends see a backlash eventually, but few have been as quick to mobilise as this one. Yet while it may seem churlish to denigrate those who have participated as ‘slacktivists’ and narcissists, the backlash brigade have some solid arguments. A common reaction to the pictures has been to wonder what bare faces have to do with breast cancer. Are participants suggesting that they are as brave for baring their natural faces on social media sites as they would be to undergo chemotherapy and face its side-effects? Is it a clever attempt to latch onto a ubiquitous trend and eke some good from the vanity of Generation Y?
If the latter, it has been hampered by a lack of direction. ‘Awareness’ is an unhelpfully vague term, for starters. A lack of further information from the majority of participants suggests the awareness it seeks to promote extends only to the existence of the illness, which is superfluous given how prominent an illness it is. Tireless activism from charities and survivors over the past few decades have made it one of the most well-known types of cancer, yet their efforts to embed it in public consciousness have been consolidated by awareness of not only the disease itself, but of how to increase one’s chances of diagnosis, and therefore of treatment and survival.
In the past, cancer survivors have bemoaned online ‘awareness’ trends, suggesting that they trivialise the illness. With only a picture and a supportive hashtag, but no useful information to clarify the aims of the ‘movement’, the same criticisms can be levied at this one. This is compounded by the fact that, unlike similar non-sequitur charity efforts – how are pink ribbons constructive for breast cancer research? How does growing a moustache in November do anything to help those with testicular cancer? – it has also been undermined by lacking a direct fundraising initiative. Without raising money to enable scientists to seek breakthroughs in cancer treatment and prevention, it is easy to come to the conclusion that the movement is little more than an excuse for people to make themselves feel good with the barest minimum of effort, while indulging narcissistic tendencies to plaster their faces across the internet.
Possibly the most important qualm of all is the fact that this is, once again, a ‘movement’ aimed solely at females, meaning that male breast cancer – yes, men can get it too – is entirely overlooked. While it may be a rare cancer, the feminisation of the breast cancer movement is such that most are totally unaware that men are susceptible to a form of it too; it is difficult to argue that this is not more in need of having awareness raised. Although the selfies aren’t a Cancer Research initiative, the charity is itself guilty of marginalising male breast cancer by making the Race For Life a female-only event.
Despite the incoherency, the narcissism and the misandry, and despite Cancer Research not having come up with the idea, it’s actually sparked a huge influx of donations to them. Social media users are often accused of having negligible attention spans, with shameless clickbait the only way of grabbing their attentions. The fact that they are able and, more importantly, willing to seek further information off their own initiative is a pleasing riposte to this claim and proves that, while awareness selfies may be a nonsensical, self-absorbed exercise, they do appear to be doing some good.
But while a few days of selfies may cause a spike in donations, it will ultimately tail off – a trend is, at the end of the day, a fad. Cancer charities need more than a brief surge of financial input; they require constant fundraising. Fundraising requires effort. A minute’s posing and posting does not constitute effort. Running or walking the Race For Life, volunteering for a research charity or suchlike would probably elicit more substantial donations from friends and family than a selfie would. Yes, it isn’t always possible to do this if you lead a busy modern life, but by failing to truly engage with the illness or aims of the charities that look to cure it, we’re failing to truly educate ourselves. And educating ourselves really would raise awareness.
Donate to Cancer Research UK here
Sign up to Race For Life here
Learn about male breast cancer here