Store shelves are packed with pink this time of year, as retailers hawk a plethora of pink-ribboned products claiming to "raise awareness" of breast cancer.
Yet, as the advocacy group Breast Cancer Action points out in its "Think Before You Pink" campaign, many of these products contribute little to nothing toward breast cancer research or patient services.
Advocates say there are a variety of far more meaningful ways to support people with breast cancer, or any type of cancer, not just in October, but throughout the year.
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Get a flu shot. The last thing that someone undergoing chemotherapy needs is the flu, which can be life-threatening to people with weakened immune systems, says Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society. Cancer patients depend on those around them to get vaccinated, which keeps the flu virus out of circulation, providing "herd immunity" for the most vulnerable members of the community.
Donate directly. Many pink products donate only a few cents for each purchase. Instead of buying something you don't need, write a check to a cancer organizaton that you respect, says Deanna Attai, a breast surgeon in Burbank, Calif.
Give blood. Donating blood provides a chance to save a life, says breast cancer survivor Jody Schoger, from The Woodlands, Texas, who needed a transfusion during her cancer surgery.
Register to be a bone-marrow donor. Thousands of patients with blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma, sickle-cell disease and other life-threatening conditions depend on these donations, according to the Be The Match Registry. Bone-marrow transplants aren't a standard treatment for breast cancer. But these transplants can help breast cancer survivors who develop life-threatening disorders, such as a myelodysplastic syndrome, once known as "pre-leukemia," as a result of their cancer treatments.
Join a research study. You don't need to have cancer to help cancer research. The Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation's Army of Women enlists women, both with and without cancer, for its studies, many of which focus on prevention. Women without cancer can serve in control groups. The American Cancer Society's "Cancer Prevention Study 3" hopes to enroll at least 300,000 people ages 30 to 65 who have never had cancer.
Lend a hand. People with cancer may be reluctant to ask for help. So offer to do something concrete, such as babysit their kids, mow their lawn, clean their house, cook dinner or drive them to treatment, Attai says. Instead of showing up with a casserole, call ahead to see if patients need or want a meal, or if they have special dietary needs, Schoger says. Groups such as Lotsa Helping Hands can help people organize friends and neighbors to share these tasks. If you can't cook, buy a gift card for a restaurant that delivers, or even a gift certificate for housecleaning services or taxi services. Even small gifts, such as a parking pass at a patient's local hospital, can mean a lot, Schoger says. Local charities, churches and hospitals are always in need of volunteers, Attai says.
Don't forget people. Cancer patients often receive lots of cards, flowers and support when they're first diagnosed. This support can trail off, however, as the weeks and months pass, even though some patients remain in therapy for years, or even the rest of their lives, says Lichtenfeld.
Make your voice heard. Funding for cancer research always seems to be in jeopardy. Call or write to elected officials to tell them that you value research, Lichtenfeld says.
The National Breast Cancer Coalition has a petition to call on elected officials to make breast cancer a national priority. Breast Cancer Action's website offers a "tool kit" for activism.
Are you a breast cancer survivor? Have you cared for someone battling the disease? 10 News Anchor Heather Van Nest wants to hear from you. Click here to share your breast cancer story. You could be featured in an upcoming Buddy Check 10 story.
Liz Szabo, USA TODAY