News and analysis
October 17, 2014

Awareness Isn’t the Problem – It’s Shame


The author and her grandmother, Elsie Huber, in 1997.

My grandmother, my father’s mother, had breast cancer sometime during my adolescence. She never told us. I only found out as an adult, when my stepmother decided to disclose this to my sister and me so that we could have the complete story of our family medical history.

Looking back, I recall my grandmother in wigs. She told us that her shampoo made her hair fall out and asked us to keep the secret. She had lost her hair to chemo and had a double mastectomy to remove the cancer. She never bothered with reconstructive surgery, and we never noticed her inconsistent chest size or that her bras were stuffed with tissues.

I guess she wanted to protect us. My mother died of lung cancer when I was six years old. My grandmother probably didn’t want us to fear losing another maternal figure. She beat cancer and died years later of old age, taking her secret with her.

Lack of awareness was not the issue. The world by that time was already awash in pink.

The issue was shame.

My grandmother was ashamed to share her fear, her pain, her loss, her sadness, her struggle, her decay, her fight. There was no awareness, no expression of her experience, just isolation.

My hope this October is that we move beyond awareness and create a safe space to honor the real experience and the struggle of fighters and survivors of diseases of all kinds. We should also strive for awareness and solutions that are in proportion to the prevalence of the disease.

Let me give you an example. One organization, Imerman Angels, pairs cancer fighters with cancer survivors (mentor angels) who had the same type of cancer. This unique partnership allows a cancer fighter to receive the kind of one-on-one support throughout the process that we know is so valuable.

What if we did more to highlight projects like this—instead of promoting the issue of breast cancer in a broad way? What if we sought to grow these types of specific projects, which we know are so valuable, instead of feeding more money into additional awareness?

Lung cancer is the number-one cancer killer of both men and women, yet breast cancer has significantly more mindshare. While pink washes over everything, other opportunities go largely unnoticed.

What if we did more by focusing on specific opportunities to help and specific challenges that people are facing?

If we did more of that, I suspect we could take shame out of the equation.

Patty Huber Morrissey, head of social innovation at Groupon, has led the philanthropic arm at Groupon since joining the company in May 2010. She developed the Groupon Grassroots initiative to turn deal seekers into do-gooders by tapping into the collective power of the group to respond to local community need.