A BCA Summer Intern’s Story: An Interview with Alice Price-Styles

Interview by Angela Wall

Alice Price-Styles

As part of our intern program, this summer Alice Price-Styles worked at Breast Cancer Action’s communications department for eight weeks. Alice grew up in Leicester, England. She is a student at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. When Alice was 17 years old, her mum died of breast cancer. Alice spoke to The Source at the end of her internship about her mum’s breast cancer diagnosis, her work with breast cancer advocacy in the United Kingdom, and her internship.

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How did you become involved with breast cancer activism?

I was first aware of “breast cancer” when I was 10, but it wasn’t until my mum’s cancer reoccurred when I was 14 that I became aware of breast cancer as an issue in and of itself, rather than just something related to my mum. It was the pink ribbons that I noticed, and all the fundraising and pins and the charities, and then we hit breast cancer awareness month in October. When my mum first passed away, I immediately noticed breast cancer everywhere: advertisements on TV and billboards. I hated that. It did nothing to motivate me to get involved. Instead, I felt like the worst had just happened to me, so what was the point of doing anything. I disengaged from everything. Eventually, I volunteered at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, which is probably the most popular charity in England. It was the breast cancer organization that I was most aware of. Then I became interested in more than just fundraising; I became interested in the actual issues around breast cancer. So I did some research and found Breast Cancer Action.

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Breast Cancer “Charities” in the U.K. and the U.S.

Breast Cancer Action is fearless. People here are very opinionated and not afraid to talk about controversial issues around breast cancer and what’s causing it, and the problems with the representation of it, and where the money comes from. All the stuff that many people don’t want to hear, BCA will still say. By comparison, Breakthrough Breast Cancer is a safe, “nice” charity. Their focus is finding a cure. Breast Cancer Action addresses the causes. They couldn’t be at more opposite ends of the spectrum.

Learning more about the politics of breast cancer has helped me to understand what my mum went through. I remember her reading self-esteem books. I remember her asking me if when she lost her hair would I be embarrassed to be seen with her. My immediate reaction was, “Don’t be ridiculous, mum, like don’t be so stupid.” At the time I never fully thought about how insecure losing all her hair must have made my mum feel.

Breast Cancer Action has put me in touch with the complexity of the issues. Working in this office, there are constant e-mails and phone calls and articles, and a library documenting this disease and responses to the disease, and information on treatment and diagnosis and causes. Unlike Breakthrough, Breast Cancer Action is a small organization with one office. People here are passionate about ending this epidemic—ending it by eliminating the causes, not finding a cure. Breakthrough is definitely about finding a cure.

I worked this summer on the Milking Cancer campaign so I’ve learned about all the hypocrisy in breast cancer, particularly the “pinkwashing” issue. Unless you’re in a BCA-like environment, you don’t ask or hear questions that challenge these norms. Working here has been really eye opening. Breast cancer is a for-profit industry, not just a disease.

Breakthrough Breast Cancer in England is a very fashionable cause. Because it’s an illness that affects women, cosmetic companies are very involved. Like here. You’re suffering from breast cancer and you’ve lost your hair, so you’ll need prosthetics and a wig and lipstick, because if you have breast cancer, you still need to be well turned out and be happy and optimistic. You have breast cancer, but you are still expected to be immaculate—as if nothing has happened. As if having breast cancer wasn’t bad enough.

Breast Cancer Action is not a “safe,” “comfortable” organization. They address issues very directly, and I feel that is more controversial. They say things that people don’t always want to hear. Breast Cancer Action doesn’t try to dumb down the issues in a way that’s cuddly or nice or easy to digest, because that’s not what breast cancer is. It’s not a nice and friendly disease. It’s a horrible disease. Women are dying from it. My mother died from it. You can’t continue to live your life in this glossed-over way. It’s like you’re struggling for your life and feeling awful, and everything out there says, “Be happy, be beautiful, live life normally.” That’s just not OK. It’s not healthy.

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The Cause Versus the Cure

Breast cancer has completely changed my life. It continues to change my life. It’s not something that just affected my life for a short time. This is how my life will be from now on. BCA has in some ways made me appreciate just how big an issue breast cancer is and how much it has affected me. Nothing is ever going to bring my mum back, but I need to do something. I think addressing the causes is the only way to stop more women from getting sick. The idea of finding a cure for cancer just seems so abstract and less tangible than looking into the roots of it. To stop so many women from getting cancer in the first place, we have to address the causes. This is going to require a huge, huge change in breast cancer activism. BCA is trying to turn the tide. Change the conversation.

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Breast Cancer Activism and 20-Year-Olds

If breast cancer issues were presented in a less disposable fashion, maybe people would engage the real issues a little bit more. Cause marketing is hugely responsible for that, I think. Cause marketing has associated the crusade against cancer with disposability. It’s about shopping for stuff you don’t really need, having a good time, and feeling special. If most breast cancer organizations actually educated women about the issue, is screening really safe and necessary for everyone? Are the cosmetics I use safe, or do they contribute to my chances of getting breast cancer? Then we might actually see some real progress. Would that engage people, though? Probably not. That kind of stuff isn’t glamorous or sexy and safe. So instead, organizations put on a big concert, and the proceeds go to a charity. And everyone has a good time and then goes home and…what? Nothing changes.

To stop so many women from getting cancer in the first place, we have to address the causes. This is going to require a huge, huge, change in breast cancer activism.

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Uncompromising Women

Coming to San Francisco is very symbolic for me. When I was 16, I came here with my mum. She had to go through so much to get here: permission from all the doctors to bring all her medication, etc. One of the things I like about Breast Cancer Action as a workplace is the attitude. Even though the issues are so, so heavy, there are still moments of lightness. I’ve found the women at Breast Cancer Action very inspiring. They are very passionate about what they do and uncompromising. I think uncompromising sums up BCA quite well. I hope it won’t be too disheartening to go back home. Back home among my contemporaries, being politically aware is a fashion statement. BCA is definitely not a fashion statement. Take the corporate donor policy, for example. It’s a more difficult route to take to refuse corporate donations, but it keeps you honest, and it allows you to challenge and address the unpleasant issues like cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies that profit from cancer.

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Calling Yourself an Activist

I think I came as an intern, and I’m leaving as an activist. I would like to implement my learning from BCA back at Breakthrough: address with them how ethical and how clean they are in dealing with the pink ribbon industry. I’d like to continue developing that activist part of me. I don’t want to leave that outlook in San Francisco; I want to take it back with me.

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