Over the last decade in my design career, I’ve had the pleasure of working for countless clients, from small nonprofits to global consumer companies. I’ve been part of a brand refresh for a company known in nearly every household, and I’ve worked on award-winning digital campaigns. I love what I do, down to every last pixel. But for me, nothing beats getting to work on campaigns that make a tangible difference in someone’s life. And nothing prepared me for what life was going to hand me.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM). For the past several years, my summers have been spent working on campaigns in preparation for BCAM. I know the statistics well. There is a 1 in 8 chance that a woman will develop breast cancer during her lifetime. Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death for women, and the death rate is highest among Black women due to racial bias combined with inconsistencies in care and screening. Thankfully, death rates have been decreasing steadily, with a 43% drop over a thirty-year period. What’s driving the survival rate? Screening and early detection.
In November of 2022, just a few months shy of my 30th birthday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. While there is no reliable data on the rates of cancer in transgender men like me, only about 4% of breast cancer cases are in women under 40. Even fewer cases are present for women under 30. My type of cancer is exceedingly rare, accounting for only 0.5% of breast cancer cases. In a matter of weeks, I found myself in and out of care centers. I saw no fewer than four different specialists, had several surgeries, and spent nearly six months in and out of hospitals on a weekly basis.
From my work with medical technology clients, I knew the process well. I knew what the biopsy would be like, from the radioactive tracer that they inject into your chest tissue to the long-term side effects of lymph node removal. I knew about my surgery options and what complications I would have because my cancer was responsive to certain hormones. But what I didn’t know was why. Why, at 29, did I find myself staring at my own pathology report? All of my doctors were baffled. I was young and relatively healthy with no significant risks. I have a limited family history of breast cancer, and genetics were ruled out after testing. In my case, according to my doctors, it was just “bad luck.”
Still, I can’t help but feel lucky. I only had one of the twelve symptoms of breast cancer, and I didn’t think anything of it. The kind of cancer I have is rare, invasive, and semi-aggressive. Even at stage 1, my doctors found four tumors. I am fortunate - I am able to treat my cancer with surgeries and a once-daily pill that I will take for the next five years. If left untreated, it could have quickly spread to other parts of my body, a process known as metastasis.
Metastatic cancer requires more intense treatment options like radiation and chemotherapy, and your survival rate drops significantly. Only about 30% of women with metastatic breast cancer - breast cancer which has spread to other parts of the body like the brain or the lung - live at least five years beyond diagnosis. It is important to note that men can also get breast cancer. While the rate is low - male breast cancer accounts for about 1% of all instances - survival rates are significantly lower for men because there is little research and education. Male breast cancer patients have a 19% higher mortality rate than women, and survival rates for men have not significantly improved over the last thirty years as they have for women.
When BCAM came around this year, I was overwhelmed but excited. I know firsthand how anxiety-inducing it can be waiting for a test result, how invasive screening can feel, how comforting it can be to talk to a stranger in a waiting room with her head wrapped in a paisley bandana. I wanted to bring my lived experience to this year’s campaign.
My excitement grew when our client told us they wanted to focus on screening and education, no product placement or brand grandstanding. They know the stats, too. When breast cancer is detected early, the five year survival rate is 99%. The five year survival rate for breast cancer that has only spread to the lymph nodes - and not the rest of the body - is 86%. Screening has led to a 29% reduction in women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. It’s obvious that screening makes a difference. This year’s BCAM campaign is global, which gives us the opportunity to reach more people than ever. Millions will see our work and learn the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, when and how often they should be screened, and what to do if they suspect they might have breast cancer. This campaign has a real chance to save lives.
I did not expect to feel rejuvenated by this work. When I came back from medical leave, I had lost six weeks to my couch and I felt out of place. It took almost a month for me to feel “back,” to feel like I was designing at the high level I expect from myself. This year’s BCAM reminded me why I started designing in the first place. In my line of business, it’s not often you get to work on truly life-changing projects, but when you do, they can be healing and restorative.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my B2B and CPG clients. I love the joy and the whimsy that comes with working on food and beverage campaigns and the problem solving that accompanies complex product launches. But there will always be something special about working on a campaign that means something, that has the potential to change the life of someone around the world for the better. Now, go get screened, and remind your friends and family to do the same!