Breast cancer awareness fluff

The amount of breast cancer awareness promotion reached to a new level this year in my life. Just a few blocks from our apartment, city officials dyed the canal pink, but it looks a little more like blood than fuchsia. A few weeks ago, I was texting (safely) and walking downtown when all of a sudden, I accidentally became part of a breast cancer awareness walk/run. Plus, you can't watch any NFL games without seeing sprinklings of hot pink.

Breast cancer awareness month is winding up, though, so it's worth considering how newspapers treated religion & cancer angles. If you aren't aware that breast cancer exists, you're hiding under a rock. Considering religion angles is one way of deepening the surface-level awareness campaigns and getting to actual stories of how people are dealing with these life-and-death issues.

A story that caught our attention was one from the Washington Post, which describes the story of Amy Vallarino, a 38-year-old mother's battle with breast cancer.

Vallarino’s metastatic inflammatory breast cancer was diagnosed in March, when she was five months pregnant with Maggie. Doctors told her at the time that the cancer had spread to her lungs, liver, spleen and spine.

She could not start radiation or drug treatments, or undergo a brain scan, until after Maggie was born, because it would have harmed the baby.

Vallarino's cancer has spread to her brain, and no one knows how long she will live. The piece offers potential to be a compelling story, but it's a little thin on the behind-the-scenes details.

For instance, you get a little sense that she might be religious, as her friend describes her as "strong and faithful." Unfortunately, there's little exploration of the family's faith, even though the story includes some hints. Her husband Michael offers what seems to be an honest quote that could have been taken further.

Bad luck follows them, Michael said. He said he is “done” and doesn’t know how much more he can take.

“There are prayers that I have asked that should have been answered a while ago,” he said of the experience. “I’m bitter. I have resentment. I’m tired.”

It's nice to see some raw emotion, something that makes it feel real. But here are some basic journalistic questions: Are they going to a church, perhaps seeking guidance from a religious leader?

How do you fit everything in a newspaper story with limited space, reporters ask. You cut quotes like these, that only offer surface-level answers.

“The students are really excited, especially because they know it is someone in the community,” she said Thursday. “When they heard the story, they felt awful.” ...

“I just want her to live as long as possible and enjoy every day as much as she can,” Hendricks said. “I want her to continue to have hope.” ...

“I don’t know why it is evolving the way it is, but I always try to stay positive,” Amy said.

I don't mean to sound insensitive. One of my family members died from breast cancer, so I know people talk vaguely in difficult circumstances. But not asking deeper questions does a disservice to readers and doesn't allow them to get a full picture. The story concludes with some quotes from Amy that could have been fleshed out.

Amy said she will take it day by day.

“God is working through it somehow,” she said. “I still think that God is in this. Every day I wake up, I embrace God, and know that he knows. As soon as you turn negative, that is not going to help you get better.”

Once you cut some of the quotes that don't offer something substantive, the reporter could follow up on those concluding quotes on how Amy knows God is working through it. Otherwise, breast cancer awareness stories risk doing nothing more than add to the pink fluff.

Breast cancer image via Shutterstock.

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