Breast Cancer Advocacy in the Digital Age

In 1991, a group of breast cancer survivors came together to demand greater support, information, and services for women – and to make ending the disease a priority for our government.

2.6 million letters, 60,000 members, and nearly $3 billion later, the National Breast Cancer Coalition has done more for advancing discussion of breast cancer’s elimination than many skeptics thought possible.

But in 2014, how can breast cancer advocates and activists continue to exert pressure on leaders, especially with so many issues – and so much pink – competing for our attention?

This was the topic for discussion last week, and I was honored to help NBCC talk through some ways that digital activism can help achieve a 2020 deadline for knowing how to end the disease.

Organized people are always more powerful than organized money. I credit my friend and organizing inspiration Deepak Bhargava for burning this into my heart, and it is true – when people can come together in a critical mass, demanding change, then money and politics and special interests don’t stand a chance.

And the Internet can be an organizer’s best friend in attaining that critical mass. People still gather in coffee shops and around water coolers, but increasingly, it’s the digital spaces where people get information, exchange ideas, and decide what to do, when, and how. Because we all have these tools, or at least have access to them, there are only a few taps, clicks, or pushes that separate us from immense organizing power.

If you’ve posted something on Facebook and someone’s liked it, or if you’ve tweeted and been retweeted, or if you’ve sent an email and had it forwarded on to a friend – you’re organizing.

By using technology to tell our stories, we can almost instantly find and connect with people just like us – be they breast cancer survivors, bi-national couples, opponents of nuclear proliferation, or nearly any possible sub-sub-subgroup of interest or affinity imaginable.

The tech is the tool, but we need to use it better. We can do things like these manufactured homeowners have done, and use Facebook to connect us to communities across the country. Or we can do things like these brave immigrant families have done, and tell our stories so that the media has no choice but to cover the people, not just the politics of an issue. By harnessing technology to educate, radicalize, and mobilize our communities, we can transcend geography and begin to turn small talk into big conversations that drive real action.

Nobody in their right mind would tell you that online activism itself will create the change any of us want to see in the world. No, it’s a tool like any other, but it’s an important tool for us to use and master. As an amplifier, online activism can help broaden the reach of messaging. As a delivery mechanism, digital tools can drive letters and calls and mentions quickly and efficiently. But we will always need people marching, writing to their local newspapers, knocking on doors, sitting in and speaking up if the society we want is to become a reality.

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you already have the tools at your fingertips. So get to work – your communities are just waiting to be (online) organized.