Good, Better, and Breast: Cool Breast Cancer Arts Initiatives

By: Chris Miller
Major: Psychology,  Minor: Global Health
WCAS, 2012

Whenever I do online research for a project or report, I get distracted – easily.  It’s not uncommon for me to find myself having wasted huge chunks of time on Google Trends.  Trends, one of about a thousand (last time I checked) features/services offered by Google, gives users info about the search volume of a given topic over time.  For instance, if you look up “Northwestern University” on Trends, you’ll see a nifty graph with a tough-to-explain-to-your-grandma peak in March of 2011.  Using Trends is an excellent way to waste time while doing web research.  What a great feeling, then, to use Trends for something productive.

If you type “breast cancer” into Google Trends, you’ll notice something right off the bat.  Every October, without fail, there is a spike in Google searches for the topic.  October is breast cancer awareness month, which, (very) apparently, lives up to its name.  Between the pink ribbons, the awareness walks and runs, and the collaboration with big-name partners, Breast Cancer Awareness Month catches our attention; awareness campaigns succeed in increasing public knowledge about health concerns.  In the case of breast cancer, the campaigns have been known to raise knowledge about treatment and prevention and to raise screening rates.  They involve the collaboration between lots of different communities (just ask the football player in pink).  Shouldn’t the arts community get in on the action?

And of course they do.  The California-based Keep A Breast Foundation is doing an awesome job using art to raise health awareness.  One of their coolest initiatives combines painting and three dimensional art.  Women who are newly diagnosed with breast cancer are given the opportunity to have plaster casts made of their breasts, before undergoing any surgeries.  The casts are then painted by pro artists in cool, creative ways.  The women use the casts to document their cancer journeys.  In addition, casts are displayed at Keep A Breast events to raise breast cancer awareness.  Keep A Breast also recently partnered with street artist Shepard Fairey (I’m guessing maybe you’ve seen this) to bring us the Non-Toxic Revolution, a campaign that uses street-art style work to educate about dangerous toxins associated with breast cancer.  Keep A Breast isn’t the only organization to use artwork in raising awareness.  There was also the Voices and Visions art exhibit in Lake Oswego, Oregon.  The exhibit, at the Lakewood Center for the Arts in Lake Oswego, featured work by artists whose lives had been impacted by breast cancer (survivors, previvors, family members, and friends).

The involvement of the arts community in raising breast cancer awareness extends beyond painting and 3-D art.  One of the most unique breast cancer initiatives is the annual Breast Fest Film Festival in Toronto.  The fest screens a number of films related to breast cancer.  Last year’s film topics ranged from women with breast cancer in the UAE to a Singapore breast cancer survivors’ boat racing team.  The fest also includes a speaker series, a comedy show, and (my favorite part) a film contest where the public can submit short films about breast cancer.  Several films are chosen by a panel and screened at the fest.  The audience votes on the best film.  This is such a cool way for all sorts of people to get involved in public health awareness efforts.  Breast cancer can also be addressed through theater.  Actress ‘Rie Shontel performs in Mama Juggs, a one woman show tackling breast health.  Shontel plays four different characters, among them her mother who died of cancer.  Mama Juggs will be showing at the Chicago Fringe Festival in Pilsen this September.

You might be wondering where I’m going with all this.  Recently, I started a project to look at the ways in which the arts community can be involved in public health.  I’m focusing on arts campaigns/initiatives directed at fighting five winnable health battles listed as priorities for the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH): tobacco, obesity, teenage/unintended pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and (you’ll never guess…) breast cancer disparities.  In the US, poor people suffer from higher breast cancer mortality rates; Chicago is no different.  The breast cancer mortality rate is also higher among black and Hispanic women.  And there is no reason why arts campaigns can’t address these disparities.  I’ve been meeting with the Commissioner of the CDPH (also a professor at Northwestern) and showing him what I come up with.  Potentially (hopefully!), initiatives similar to the ones I’ve talked about will spring up around Chicago.  Chicago has one of the biggest, best, and, yes, artsiest arts communities of any city around.  Why shouldn’t the windy city’s arts community be part of a unique, refreshing approach to fighting public health battles?

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