October? Bah, humbug.


Sometime in my forties, I started turning into an old fogey. One of the first signs of this was the attitude I found myself taking towards Hallowe’en. Or at least Hallowe’en as it is marked These Days as distinct from the Good Old. I do not have any problem with a bit of pumpkin-carving or apple-bobbing and the telling of some spooky stories. Nor is this an objection on the theological grounds that we shouldn’t dance with the devil or dabble in the dark arts. And I did try to do my bit for a couple of years, trailing round the streets at a discreet distance from small girls dressed in sheets, as they excitedly tried to extort sweets out of complete strangers. My objection comes principally from what I perceive as the over-commercialisation of a festival that would be better kept simple and home-spun. I think a certain amount of transatlantic drift has contributed to this overkill – it’s a much bigger deal that it used to be. Witness the nasty cheap plastic costumes in all the shops, the plethora of extruded potato snacks in ghost shapes, and the orange lollipops. And while as a Quaker I shouldn’t be setting great store by festivals, it also troubles me that children probably have little idea of the origins of Hallowe’en – little sense of the sacred which might make one want to pause and think about All Saints or All Souls. I know even my own daughters don’t “get” why Easter (to give another example) is, in my view, in a rather different league from Red Nose Day.*

But I digress – back to October. Now here’s another example of transatlantic drift – Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
This was started in about 1985 in the USA, to encourage women to check themselves and to go for screening. At the time, this may have been laudable. But two things have happened: firstly, the screening programmes both here and in the States are now arguably doing more harm than good (see my other posts). Secondly Breast Cancer Awareness Month has grown out of all proportion into a horrible, silly, pink month-long party, in which we are encouraged to buy things we don’t need and take part in daft competitions in the name of supporting women with breast cancer. And I bet most of those who contribute – with the best of intentions of course – think they are doing something politically correct (“let’s ensure women’s health is high on the agenda”), and are unaware of the origins of the Month, and of the controversies which surround screening.

I actually think that the influence of the breast cancer charities may be having a negative effect on women’s health. These charities are so powerful that, as Professor Michael Baum suggests, doing away with the screening programme is “politically unacceptable”. They all recommend that women go for routine screening – even now, after the publication of the new screening leaflet; though some express more caution than others. And it does honestly seem to me that the pinker the charity, the less critical it is. So it is very hard for medics and researchers to sit down and think carefully about screening from first principles in the light of current knowledge; and it is very hard for politicians to think about re-directing resources away from screening and into research and better, more targeted, individual, treatments – which is where I think the money should go. I also think it should go particularly into the care and support of those who are not the breast cancer “successes” we all like to think about. Apparently women who develop secondary breast cancers (still incurable) speak often of a sense of abandonment. According to the prevailing rhetoric, they’re the “failures” after all. Maybe they didn’t “fight” hard enough.

I am not a lone voice. I have discovered that lots of women who have had breast cancer hate Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Mercifully I am not aware that its worst excesses have reached the UK yet: in the States apparently it is in danger of becoming a festival of the boob. (“It’s all about the boobies” says the T shirt slogan). Because boobs are fun and sexy, and you don’t have to think too hard about real women and their needs and choices that way.

At my daughter’s school, where the sixth formers are still in uniform (!?), they are allowed to buy and wear a pink tie in October. My daughter won’t be wearing one. And if she’s asked why, she’ll have to explain. It’s because that Old Fogey, her mother, has had breast cancer.

*They say they do. Sorry, girls.


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