“Our stories of survivorship aren’t a marketing ploy, and they aren’t pretty.”
The first October after Trish Michelle was in active breast cancer treatment hit differently than those of the past, she remembers. The usual surge in images and pink ribbons made her feel involved because she was now part of the cancer community.
The second October? Not so much.
“Something didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it,” she says. “By year 3, that feeling was even stronger, but now I understood why I felt unsettled. It’s because people were making this into a promotion, into a marketing thing.”
“They were making money off us, but how much of that funding was going into support and research? That’s when I got mad.”
By that time, she’d formed a friendship with another breast cancer survivor, Tiffany Dyba, and the pair had put together a weekly event, Hip-Hop Happy Hour, streamed live on Instagram.
The show celebrates those in the cancer community and although there’s plenty of support, the pair emphasize this isn’t just a group of shoulders to cry on. It’s a community of outspoken, passionate, dedicated people who refuse to let cancer define them. They also swear a lot, Dyba jokes.
Now that it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month again, awash in pink ribbons and tender messaging, that ferocity is getting dialed up. They’ve started an alternate movement for those who feel, like Michelle and Dyba, that something is off about all the pinkwashing, that there’s not enough support going to smaller groups that are doing incredible research, and certainly not enough recognition of what those in the breast cancer community actually face.
In addition to being suspicious about how little money is trickling into research, they believe there’s a kind of pity-based approach to breast cancer awareness that they’d love to power wash away. Their movement is called Reclaim October, and they’re ready to get loud.
“Our stories of survivorship aren’t a marketing ploy, and they aren’t pretty,” says Dyba. “They aren’t pink. They’re real. Seeing brands and businesses profit off of us and not be transparent about where the money is going is maddening.”
Before joining forces, Michelle and Dyba had similar paths in their breast cancer journeys. Both found lumps in their mid-30s, and neither had a family history of the disease. Both had double mastectomies, chemotherapy, and radiation, and both turned to support groups to find a deeper sense of community. One more aspect they shared: feeling awkward in those groups because everyone else was decades older.
“When you’re younger, you have different issues, so of course we had things in common, but it was a struggle to connect on other challenges,” recalls Michelle.
For example, many of the other women talked about their grandchildren, while she wanted to talk about the difficulties with being single and dating while in treatment, as well as concerns about fertility and sex.
When the pair met at a “Friendsgiving,” they hit it off immediately, especially when they realized one more big overlap was a love for hip-hop music. They drew on that connection during COVID-19 shutdowns by starting the online happy hour as a lark — but then realized the group joining them was devoted to those Friday gatherings.
The more they talked with other breast cancer survivors, the more they realized they weren’t alone in their feelings of irritation over the pinkwashing. And as October started to loom again with its pink teddy bears, pink wine, pink football jerseys, and more, they said: enough.
“It’s time to take back our stories,” says Michelle, adding that Reclaim October has already raised $5,000 just through Instagram.
Those funds have allowed them to donate to hand-picked charities that make a direct impact on the lives of those in the breast cancer community. For example, one organization helps buy groceries and gas cards to take that financial pressure off people in treatment.
“This is what makes an impact, this is what actually supports those in the community,” says Dyba. “That money is going right to the people, not to ‘administrative costs.’ That’s how you show people you care about what’s happening with them.”
One of the most challenging aspects of the Breast Cancer Awareness month and movement is the almost unrelenting focus on screening and treatment, the pair believe. Of course those are crucial, says Michelle, but what about the millions of women on the other side of treatment? They’re the ones who know that the toughest part of having breast cancer often comes after ringing that bell signaling the end of chemo.
Part of the Reclaim October effort is boosting awareness of the difficulties involved with being a survivor. That’s when many who have had cancer feel abandoned, Dyba says, because so much attention is placed on treatment.
“I like to say cancer really begins when it ends,” she adds. “In the midst of surgery and treatment, you’re in a whirlwind. But when the dust settles and you have a moment to process, you realize you’re sad, terrified, and angry. And all of that comes to the surface just as your team says, ‘See you in 3 months.’”
Friends and family, too, seem to sigh with relief and move on, just when someone who’s in remission feels like the bottom dropped out of their world.
“You don’t ring the bell and you’re done,” says Michelle. “In many ways, it feels like you’re starting all over again. You have a belief while you’re in treatment that when you’re finished, you’ll go back to normal. But that normal is gone.”
With Reclaim October and Hip-Hop Happy Hour, the pair feel that they’re making traction on providing another kind of support for everyone in the community, at every stage of this disease. Together, they all celebrate milestones, mourn those who have been lost, pay homage, and gripe over frustrations. They still swear a lot, too.
“This community should be a place where you feel safe, where you can come as you are and voice whatever you want to say,” says Michelle. “That’s the story we want to tell.”
Elizabeth Millard lives in Minnesota with her partner, Karla, and their menagerie of farm animals. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including SELF, Everyday Health, HealthCentral, Runner’s World, Prevention, Livestrong, Medscape, and many others. You can find her and way too many cat photos on her Instagram.