Breast cancer awareness month takes place every October with the goal of raising funds to combat a disease that affects one in eight Canadian women. 

But such awareness-raising needs to be a year-round priority, say advocates working to spread knowledge about treatment and prevention.

The initiative, which began in 1985 through a partnership established by the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries, has two main goals: to bring awareness to the disease and to raise funds for research and treatment options.

The Canadian Cancer Society says the initiative is key in lowering death rates and diagnosis rates among Canadians

Community initiatives, fundraisers and support from businesses, big and small, bring the initiative to life. The pink ribbon, associated with breast cancer and events related to the disease, is a symbol of support.

The Canadian Cancer Society estimated that last year, 75 Canadians a day heard the words “You have breast cancer”

Andrea Douglas, an Ottawa breast cancer survivor, says the initiative is essential in raising awareness but neglects the fact breast cancer isn't limited to one month a year. 

“For me, breast cancer awareness month is January to December,” said Douglas. “As women, breast cancer should always be in the back of our minds.” 

"For me breast cancer awareness month is January to December. As women, breast cancer should always be in the back of our minds."

— Andrea Douglas, breast cancer survivor, peer support provider with Breast Cancer Action Ottawa

Douglas raises questions about the pink ribbon and what it symbolizes. She says people buy into the products or marketing without truly understanding if the items have an impact on patients.

“Cancer awareness month is important in terms of reminding women to book their mammogram or to do monthly self breast exams,” Douglas says. “But most of the stuff with pink ribbons does just that, jogs women’s memory to complete those tasks but the money raised is limited.”

Douglas has been cancer free for seven years. She now provides peer support to other breast cancer patients in Ottawa through the local chapter of the not-for-profit group Breast Cancer Action. 

Andrea Douglas in the hospital receiving chemo.
Andrea Douglas, 61, receiving chemo while undergoing breast cancer treatment. [Photo courtesy Andrea Douglas]

BCA provides a range of support to Ottawa residents affected by breast cancer. The group's mission is to enhance the quality of life of breast cancer patients and survivors through practical help, emotional support and education.

The BCA provides a camisole from Kelly’s Boutique to help with healing post-mastectomy or lumpectomy, as well as peer support and fitness classes. The group says providing support is critical for the wellbeing of breast cancer patients, but COVID-19 has made that kind of outreach and support more difficult.

BCA came close to closing because of the financial support lost to the pandemic. The organization was also experiencing a higher number of intake calls from patients who were even more stressed than in pre-pandemic times because of surgeries being postponed because of the COVID crisis.

Marie-Louise Doyle, BCA’s executive director, said the government needs to be held accountable for the additional stress and anxiety they’ve caused to cancer patients throughout the pandemic.

“I want to tell Justin Trudeau: ‘You sit across the table from someone who’s mastectomy has been cancelled and tell them yourself’, ” said Doyle.

Marie-Louise Doyle discusses what BCA provides to breast cancer patients in Ottawa and surrounding areas.

Although Doyle acknowledges the benefits associated with breast cancer awareness month, she said it's important the topic be discussed throughout the year since it's the most common cancer and second cause of death among Canadian women

"Hearing the words 'You have breast cancer' is hard. People need to understand that it can happen to them. Even men can get breast cancer."

— Marie-Louise Doyle, executive director, Breast Cancer Action Ottawa

“Hearing the words you have breast cancer is hard,” said Doyle. “People need to understand that it can happen to them. Even men can get breast cancer.” 

Long after breast cancer awareness month comes to an end each year, research and peer support continues to impact the survival rates among Canadian women

“The main message I want people to keep in mind is to be breast-health aware,” said Doyle. “Advocate for yourself, ask questions and make sure you book your breast cancer screening appointments.”