Awareness Games: Breast Cancer and Domestic Violence

Every October, when Domestic Violence Month rolls around, before it even begins I get very, very tired. That’s because every October, gaining awareness for domestic violence seems to be an uphill battle against the pink army that is the other October cause, Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

That sounds really bitter, right? Like I hate people who support breast cancer or something? Wrong. Breast cancer is obviously a worthy cause that deserves attention. But does it have to steal all of the attention?

It is frustrating for those of us trying to gain support for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, trying to get our purple ribbons seen when we’re staring at an ocean of pink. An enormous part of the problem is stigma. A few decades ago, breast cancer was very stigmatized. Awareness campaigns brought out the subject and made it okay for people to talk about. Everyone understands now. Cancer is a disease; it’s not a person’s fault. The women who have it and are fighting it and living with it are considered brave, strong, even heroic. It’s a cause everyone can get behind without question; what kind of jerk doesn’t support cancer? People feel good about themselves when they buy a product that has a pink ribbon on it; it’s armchair philanthropy.

Listen, I’m not saying these things are bad. It’s amazing that the stigma on breast cancer has lifted, because millions of lives have been saved. It’s simply that, in comparison, domestic and sexual violence are still largely crimes that live in the dark. There’s a stigma attached to them that’s so severe, that one third of victims of domestic violence and two-thirds of sexual assault victims are not reporting to law enforcement. Of those victims, 41% of male and 34% of female stated victimization being a private/personal matter as reason for not reporting, 15% of women feared reprisal, 12% of all victims wished to protect the offender, and 6% of all victims believed police would do nothing.

Unfortunately, they are right about that.

Nationally, in the last 10 years the number of arrests for domestic violence have dropped from over 120,000 per year to around 85,000 per year. If a person in that one-third that comes forward to report a rape actually endures the re-traumatizing and invasive post-rape medical exam and is interviewed by police, it is highly unlikely that his or her efforts will result in justice, seeing as the conviction rate for sexual assault is only 3%— meaning  97% of rapists walk free.

How in the hell is that possible? It’s called rape culture. It’s just like how it used to be for breast cancer: unmentionable in public, the person who had it was marked somehow and there were sympathies to her face and gossip behind her back. In our culture, when a person is raped— especially a woman— she is the one with the burden of proof. She is considered a slut until proven virginal. We spend so much time focusing on what she was wearing, where she was walking, what she was drinking, and if she said no that we forget who the criminal actually is. It’s the same way with domestic violence. It is complicated and messy. There’s often substance abuse involved and children who are witnesses and fights that could go both ways. Emotional and verbal abuse are hard to pin down, though I assure you, it happens all the time. But come on: there is absolutely no fucking excuse for ignoring physical violence. And yet people do, constantly. No one wants to talk about domestic and sexual violence the way they are willing to openly discuss breast cancer. Why? Because it’s ugly; it’s painful; it’s shameful. People are afraid of it. And for reasons beyond my comprehension, people really love to blame the victims. While cancer patients are considered brave, victims of domestic and sexual violence are called stupid, lazy, slutty, and deserving of their abuse.

Every October, I feel burned out by the 2nd. I stare at the ocean of pink and wonder how in the world I’m going to gain attention for a cause that no one wants to speak or hear about. A cause that makes people uncomfortable, that triggers a flicker of shock across their faces as soon as the word “violence” comes out of my mouth. The only ones who are not shocked are the ones who have a personal connection to domestic violence. That’s when I hear the stories: “My sister had a boyfriend who hit her.” “I was married to a guy like that.” “My dad abused me as a kid.”

When I hear those stories, I have a bit of hope; these are people who will help spread the word. Perhaps they will understand, perhaps I can explain to them and make them realize how much we need to educate the public about domestic and sexual violence. I’m doing everything within my power. But when I look at all the major corporations and foundations that are sponsoring breast cancer, I think, I want those same resources for this. How do I make them realize that domestic and sexual violence are at an all-time high? 1 in 3 women worldwide will experience violence in her lifetime. How do I get them to hear that and maybe give their support towards another cause this October?

The thing is, breast cancer is no longer a crisis the way it was a decade ago. Female breast cancer incidence rates began decreasing in 2000, then dropping by about 7% from 2002 to 2003.  Death rates from breast cancer have been declining since about 1990, with larger decreases in women younger than 50. These decreases are believed to be the result of earlier detection through screening and increased awareness, as well as improved treatment. Think about it; that pink ribbon has become synonymous with breast cancer, and you can find it on every product imaginable. The Susan G. Komen Foundation in particular has done an incredible job with this. Another big part of the decrease is due to the fact that pharmaceutical companies and companies that sell medical and surgical equipment will invest in awareness campaigns, the pink ribbon branding, and fund-raising for research, which brings in millions of dollars every year for the cause. Domestic violence does not have this resource because so far, there’s no surgery that can prevent a man from beating his wife, and chemotherapy can’t cure incest. Those companies have no interest in sponsoring a cause that will give them nothing back. With breast cancer, there are patients that use their products so they recoup that money. Until we figure out what part of the brain makes a person violent toward their loved ones, or find a medicine that can erase the effects of sexual trauma, those companies have no incentive to spread purple ribbons the way they do pink, or try to raise funds for victims’ services. Meanwhile, the statistics show a 42-percent increase in reported domestic violence and a 25-percent increase in the reported incidence of rape and sexual assault. Does this mean that I think we should ignore breast cancer? That breast cancer is no longer a problem and we should focus solely on domestic violence? Of course not. Breast cancer is still a killer, the second deadliest cancer after lung cancer, and obviously, we need to keep seeking a cure. But do I think it’s currently at the crisis level that domestic violence is?


Saying that is going to upset people, possibly offend people, particularly those who have loves ones affected by breast cancer. I understand your feeling that way. But when you take a look at these numbers, you might begin to understand where I’m coming from when I say that.

–       About 1 in 8 U.S. women (just under 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime.

–       Twice as many, 1 in 4 U.S. women (25%) has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime.

–       In 2011, an estimated 230,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer were expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 57,650 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer (288,130 cases total).

–       Twenty times as many, an estimated 6 million women are victims of domestic violence each year

–       On average, more than three women and one man are murdered by their intimate partners in this country every day. Intimate partner homicides accounted for 30% of the murders of women and 5% percent of the murders of men. Homicide is the number 1 cause of death in pregnant women. Most intimate partner homicides occur between spouses, though boyfriends/girlfriends have committed about the same number of homicides in recent years.

–       One in five (21%) women in the U.S. reports she has been raped or physically or sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Three in four women (76%) who reported they had been raped and/or physically assaulted since age 18 said that an intimate partner (current or former husband, cohabiting partner, or date) committed the assault.

–       Nearly three out of four (74%) of Americans personally know someone who is or has been a victim of domestic violence. 30% of Americans say they know a woman who has been physically abused by her husband or boyfriend in the past year.

–       There are only 1,500 shelters for battered women in the United States; there are 5,000 animal shelters.

This is beyond unacceptable. When we have more resources for stray animals than

abuse victims, something is seriously fucked up.

This whole thing may sound like I’m trying to make the month of October some giant competition between breast cancer and domestic violence, like I think one cause is better than the other. That’s not the case. What I really want is just some more air time, a little more space, and more financial resources to do as wonderful a job of eradicating the stigma around domestic and sexual violence as the breast cancer camp has done. Seriously, we need some of the breast cancer publicists over in the domestic violence camp! Those people get shit done.

Another suggestion that has been made is to move Domestic Violence Awareness Month to May, so it won’t be drowned out. That could work. As long as there is some time dedicated to fighting for this cause. As many of you know— if you’ve read any other part of WfR— I’ve got my own (long and intense) history with both domestic and sexual violence. Whenever someone takes up a cause, it’s not a coincidence; they do it because it affects them somehow. That’s why this is such an emotional topic, and why, when I bring it up, people who are affected by breast cancer tend to get pissed off at me. That’s okay. As long as it’s being discussed, as long as it’s out in the open, perhaps things will begin to change.

© Sarah Ann Henderson 2012

P.S.— In the interest of fairness I feel I must add that there are two other October causes that get even less attention that either breast cancer or domestic violence: Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month and National Bullying Prevention Month. Both of these are really important and deserve attention too, please take a look at their websites for more information!

National Bullying Prevention Center

Remembering Our Babies

Statistical Resources Included:

Bureau of Justice Statistics

Domestic Violence Resource Center

Susan G. Komen Foundation

Human Rights Watch


Clark County Prosecutor, Domestic Violence Office

Centers for Disease Control


About writingforrecovery

Sarah is a writer and poet who speaks out about issues that make people uncomfortable. Sarah advocates for causes such a sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, and mental illness, and often speaks openly about her own experiences. She is determined to abolish the stigma associated with these issues and believes that it starts with people telling their stories, so she started a blog called Writing for Recovery where people can do just that. She is the author of three volumes of poetry and is currently at work on her fourth. She is convinced that there's a novel somewhere in her, and occasionally picks at the chapters so far. View all posts by writingforrecovery

15 responses to “Awareness Games: Breast Cancer and Domestic Violence

  • Beka

    Ms. Sarah – I stumbled across your blog when I was searching for statistics to do the exact same comparison you’ve done such a wonderful job of explaining. I feel the same way and it is exhausting when we’re scrapping for pennies, particularly in tribal communities where I come from and the disparaties are even greater.

    • writingforrecovery

      Thank you. This was a difficult article to write. It’s a difficult topic to approach because there are so many emotions on both sides and so many statistics to sort through. I appreciate that you thought I did a good job; I tried!! I hope you can get the dollars you need to support the survivors in your community. Best wishes.

  • Janette Kirchner

    I think moving it to May would be wise. There’s 12 months in the year there’s no reason Domestic Violence awareness can’t have it’s own month. I don’t have money to donate to the cause but I’m shouting as loud as I can. I absolutely refuse to let the pain my mom suffered through for ten years and the death of my friend be in vain.

    • writingforrecovery

      I agree. If they move it to may, again it will be competing (May is Mental Health month, another cause that is hugely important to me) but as long as they don’t move it to April it’ll be fine. I mean, April is already Child Abuse Prevention AND Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Month. Yikes!

      • Robin Meadows Harrison

        I know. I posted Domestic Abuse Awareness on my fb page. But it is also Lupus Awareness too, which I also have, and SPD Awareness Monthhich my son has! All are important, none get noticed!

  • Michelle

    There is something for every single month…and a “ribbon awareness” color for so many causes, it’s unreal. Other than friends who have thus far survived breast cancer, I have not been personally affected by breast cancer…so my real focus is and will be on Domestic Violence and Pregnancy and Infant loss awareness, as both have affected me personally. If Domestic Violence Awareness month gets moved…how does that happen? Who decides what month it occurs?

  • breast cancer incidence rates

    […] Awareness Games: Breast Cancer and Domestic Violence […]

  • maliykam

    I agree and talked out the disparity in awareness in today’s blog post.

  • ranthegauntlet

    Such a good post.Very informative. It is amazing how such a widespread problem can be so misunderstood (still) and under-addressed. Thank you for your post.

  • Shannon Jennifer Knight

    I am combining two of them Breast cancer and Domestic Violence ❤

    I know someone that recently beat stage 4 cancer, (I will keep the name private to protect the privacy of the innocent woman.) that was going through domestic violence at the same time and quite frankly I don't care what month or color. That is a cause I am starting on right NOW.

    The only people that truly supported or believed this woman were her closest friends. and one sibling and father. When she reached out to the authorities they were always intercepted by her husband who would make up stories that were lies saying she was crazy because she was on medication and dying from cancer, when in fact she was a survivor and fighting it naturally. The police never arrested him once and she had bruises on her already broken body from the cancer that was eating her bones.

    Her abuser was also the one driving her to appointments and he was very well known by outside society in the social scene among their friends and a little charmer. He was Dr.Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde and he was the man she relied on even though she was always afraid. She acted like everything was alright to the outside world because no one could help her with cancer so how could they help her with domestic violence and cancer. She had to survive this horrific situation and her husband was the lesser of the two evils. He had the money for her treatment that her friends were raising in his bank account.

    The breast cancer spread to her lungs, bones, lymph nodes and she was in serious trouble. She went the alternative route so cash was the only way to pay because the treatments were not FDA approved. SHE SURVIVED CANCER AND HIM AND NOW SHE IS FREE.

    No one could possibly take care of a woman with stage 4 cancer. This was her second time fighting it. People will stand against a woman fighting for her life and believe the charming husband's lies because THEY WANT TO BELIEVE IT. It sounds exciting to believe him that after all he did for her. Poor poor unappreciated man, easy to believe when the sick wife is being quite protecting him because if she tells her friends it endangers her life, he could dump her. He was the beast in her life and she endured and this is a fact.

    Once in an abusive relationship, women with severe cancer or other disabilities are motivated to stay by the same host of factors that keep non-disabled women in these relationships – fear of further violence, belief the batterer will change, love of the abuser, having children in common, having no economic support if they leave, religious beliefs, and many other concerns. But for women with disabilities there are additional factors that can limit their ability to leave such as physically not being able to exit the house, fear of losing caregiver service if they report the abuse, not knowing if the local shelter is physically accessible (i.e., wheelchair ramp, workers who know sign language), fear they will be institutionalized if they leave their partner and lack of resources.

    My friends abuser is a very good storyteller to people, but not one person came to check the facts out and see if she was okay, needed help etc, not one single person he spoke to. They fell for his lies, hook line and sinker and she has a reputation of love, service and kindness that holds up. Her character is consistent. These people do not look for truth, they look for what they can get from him, a job, sports drinking buddy or just not wanting to rock the boat, They are weak in character.

    She beat it on her own and she is doing something for the other women and so am I These causes are not competition. Band together!! The sickest thing I have witnessed are women sick in bed fighting cancer abused by there husbands. This needs a ribbon.

    Disabled women are twice as likely to be abused (FACT)

  • cendra

    I loved the post and all of the replies, from what I am reading we have a lot of strong, courageous and beautiful women standing up against violence and breast cancer. I honestly do not have an opinion on what month is for either cause, shared or not they both deserve our attention. We just need to spread more purple around, so I say keep talking and sharing our stories! Strength in numbers and we will be heard!!

  • cendra

    I also want to add that I co-founded a non profit with a friend called the J. Marie Survivor’s fund to help women of domestic violence. Like us on Facebook we are new and trying to build our organization!

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