Every October for decades now, breast cancer has received vast amounts of media attention. But somewhere along the way, the quest for awareness became a more commercial effort. Pink ribbons, magnets and merchandise line our cabinets and hang in our windows this month, and we think we've done our part. There may not yet be a cure for breast cancer, but we're helping, one month out of one year at a time.
But one breast cancer survivor has had enough.
Sick of the cutesy signs and slogans as she takes her medications each day to keep her cancer in remission, 36-year-old lawyer Jennifer Alter, from St. Louis, Missouri, posted raw and uncensored photos of her charred and reddened breasts after her mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, and other horrors (including a "tissue expander" in advance of reconstruction) two years ago. "Here's your fucking breast cancer awareness" she titled the pictures on her Tumblr. "Does this make you uncomfortable?" she asked in the post. "It should."
That post now has more than 165,000 reblogs and favorites on Tumblr itself and has been picked up and syndicated on dozens of aggregate sites, resulting in millions of views. Apparently the world was ready for real awareness. But was Jennifer Alter ready to be the face of eff-you, Pink October? We talked with her to find out why she posted the images, and what she's gone through since.
Motherboard: Why did you decide to make that post?
Jennifer Alter: I just got so tired of hearing about how it's the "good" cancer or seeing pictures of perfect tits online with "save the tatas" written all over them. Because nobody saved my tatas. And it wasn't cute or pretty. And there is no good cancer. And that stuff hurts me to see all month.
So it's almost become like this game? Like raising awareness for boobs?
Right! I always tell people that everyone is aware of breast cancer. Unfortunately, people don't seem to be aware that the treatment is downright medieval and that people still die from it.
One guy told me that breast cancer is sexy to him, as he has a cancer fetish
Right after my diagnosis, this woman I worked with told me, "Oh don't worry. Breast cancer is a good cancer to get. Nobody dies from breast cancer anymore."
What you did seems to be creating more awareness than the past few years of pink combined. How did you think those pictures would affect people?
Well, I had no idea they'd go viral. I originally posted that pic back in October 2013, and only got like nine notes because I didn't have many followers back then. This time, I mostly thought that the handful of people I've known via Tumblr would see what was up and get a better understanding of what breast cancer is actually all about. I expected I'd get a response, but this response has been overwhelming.
What are some of the responses you've been getting?
Most of the responses have been thanking me for showing a side of breast cancer that people have never seen and didn't know existed. They tell me I have opened their eyes. I did have one young lady tell me that she "didn't want to see" my pictures and that she has a close relative with breast cancer and I was making it worse. One guy told me that breast cancer is sexy to him, as he has a cancer fetish. One dude just said that awareness is awareness and I need to get over myself. But, seriously, almost everyone has thanked me, told me I'm brave, an inspiration. It's a bit much.
With all this awareness promotion every year, how is it possible that no one knew the side you showed us?
I think it's hard for survivors to let others know, not only their pain, but their ugly. I've always had body image issues, and they are even worse now. It was hard to post that pic. I'm putting myself out there. That was before my reconstruction was complete, and so while things are better than that now, my breasts will never be perfect.
Is the current state of the awareness campaign hindering to these types of efforts as well?
It is. All of these people expect you to be okay once the treatment is over, when in reality, life is almost harder after treatment. Because we are expected to be okay. We are expected to be happy that we survived, despite whatever mental and/or physical health issues we may still be experiencing. And it is disheartening to see how the Stage 4 women (and men) get totally left out. They are a downer. They show that all the pink stuff in the world hasn't resulted in an actual cure.
What was your experience battling breast cancer like?
I discovered the problem one day in October 2012 when I was changing my shirt in front of the bathroom mirror. I noticed my left nipple was inverted. It had happened pretty much overnight. I started feeling around my breast and I felt a big, hard mass deep down, which wasn't present in the other. I just knew it was cancer, but I set up an appointment at Planned Parenthood to get checked out. The nurse practitioner told me something was weird and sent me to get a mammogram and ultrasound. Then I had a biopsy and that was extremely unpleasant. That same day they told me they were almost certain it was cancer. The next day, November 1, 2012, they confirmed.
I had a bilateral mastectomy a few weeks later. I went back in December for an axillary lymph node dissection, which was actually more painful than the mastectomy, and has caused more problems, such as lymphedema.
I want them to think before they pink. I want them to think about how a survivor feels about "saving the tatas" or "no bra day."
I went to see a medical oncologist who prescribed eight rounds of chemo. Chemo was rough. The hair loss, the pain, the nausea. It was burning out my veins in my feet and hands. They were red and inflamed for months. It made my toe nails fall off.
After chemo, I had 35 days of radiation. My skin didn't handle it well. Even now my skin on the left side is thinner. You can see the implant through the skin on the lower part of the breast.
Now I take Tamoxifen as my cancer was hormone positive [the cancer cells have receptors for estrogen and/or progesterone, meaning they respond better to hormone therapy]. It causes all kinds of side effects. I have to take it for at least five years, but current guidelines suggest 10. My doctor says that without it, my chance of recurrence is almost 50 percent.
I've heard people say it's like getting a free boob job,
That must enrage you.
Yeah that's a hard one to swallow. But I'm trying to not take my anger out on other people because they just don't know. Part of me didn't truly believe they didn't know, but after the responses I've received when these pics went viral, I can see that it is true. It really is just ignorance. And pinkwashing.
How does pinkwashing hurt the cause?
It's infuriating to know that there are all these people out there who want to help and who think they are helping find a cure, when in reality, they are helping line some big wig CEO's bank account. These corporations are taking advantage of these good-hearted people and of survivors. It makes me sick.
How can people really help the cause, if they're interested?
If you know someone with breast cancer (or any cancer really), bringing them food, cleaning their house, sitting with them during chemo, driving them to and from treatments, picking up meds -- all of this stuff is helpful. As far as donations go, donating to actual cancer centers to fund research is my favorite. I also like the Young Women with Breast Cancer Foundation and First Descents.
What do you want people to walk away from your post with?
I want people to understand that breast cancer is very serious. I want people to know that almost 40,000 people die from this disease every year. I want them to think before they pink. I want them to think about how a survivor feels about "saving the tatas" or "no bra day." I want them to know that 20 to 30 percent of breast cancer cases will become metastatic. I want them to know that just because I'm in remission right now doesn't mean this isn't going to kill me someday. Maybe sooner rather than later.