After a stream of caustic and angry comments from people with cancer last month on social media, the cancer charity 'Be Bold, Be Bald!' has closed down, with its founder issuing an apology and pledging to be guided by "the community of patients, survivors and advocates in the future."
'Be Bold, Be Bald!' is an annual campaign in its 11th year that sells flesh-toned swim caps to individuals and groups to wear on October 21 in solidarity with people living with cancer.
"For ONE day, put on a bald cap and put vanity aside. Why? To fight cancer," says the group on its Twitter homepage.
Participants wear the bald cap and solicit sponsorships in order to raise money for the organization, which then donates funds to other cancer charities. Groups receiving donations included the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
"We've had tens of thousands of participants join from around the world, raising close to $1.5 million for 50+ cancer charities," the organization says on an explanatory webpage.
The campaign was started in 2010 by Jeff Freedman, a Boston advertising agency executive. He was inspired by the cancer death of his business partner and friend Mike Cowell, who lost his hair from chemotherapy.
However, the charity may be a case of good intentions that paved a road to a bad place for some people with a history of cancer.
Multiple patients/survivors said that using a traumatic side effect of chemotherapy as a fundraising tool is insulting and disrespectful.
"Let's be bald together," the charity said early last month in a promotional tweet for its 2021 fundraising campaign.
Patients with cancer and survivors of the disease lashed out at the promotion.
"No. No. No. Just no. wtf is wrong with you…Where's your 'give yourself diarrhea for 6 months' kit? Or your 'make it feel like you're walking on glass neuropathy socks'?! Get it?" tweeted a nurse living with ovarian cancer who uses the handle @littlekbomb.
"WTF is wrong with people?! Oh, I know! They never had cancer." tweeted Nancy Deol, the CEO of Heartbrain Marketing in Manchester, New Hampshire.
A Scottish writer and poet battling cancer, known as @weirb4 on Twitter, also expressed dismay in a tweet: "I'm not celebrating my baldness. Nor my constant diarrhea, my toenail falling off, my fat steroid-y face, my fatigue, my aching bones."
Laura Samuelsson, PhD, a psychologist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin who lost her hair from chemotherapy, said she was "fuming" when she first saw the ad: "I still can't bring myself to go the site, as it's too disgusting, but I want to know who is benefiting from this organization."
Elizabeth West, an actress living in New York City and Los Angeles and a cancer survivor, tweeted that the gesture of wearing a skull cap as a cancer statement/fundraiser was "so insulting."
Shirley Ledlie, who has permanent hair loss from the chemotherapy Taxotere (docetaxel), criticized the short time span of the Be Bold, Be Bald commitment: "One day? One day? OMG! What about EVERY DAY!
Johanna Rauhala, a retired educator and a poet in the San Francisco area living with metastatic breast cancer, gave 'Be Bold, Be Bald!' credit for having good intentions, but then criticized the whole concept. "You meant well," she tweeted. "But please don't use a traumatic side effect as a costume-y prop for funds."
In comments to Medscape Medical News, Rauhala suggested that the eruption of anger from cancer patients and survivors seen this year to this campaign, which has been running for a decade, may be related to an underlying anxiety about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rauhala senses "resentment" among "many" in the cancer community, she said in an email, about some people choosing to be unvaccinated "while people with cancer don't necessarily have that choice."
"The most vulnerable of us are paying the mortal price," Rauhala said. Not only are people with cancer more vulnerable to COVID-19, the pandemic has also generally affected healthcare, and some cancer treatments have been postponed or delayed.
The Group May Make a Comeback
The outcry from people with cancer was evidently heard by the organization.
"From the depths of my heart, I am sorry and apologize for all the pain this campaign has caused," Freedman, the founder, said in the statement that announced the closure of the charity. It is now a Pinned Tweet on the organization's Twitter homepage.
He also suggested that the group might make a comeback in another form. In the online announcement about the organization's closure, Freedman said "we recognize that any approach that does not unite and pains people is not right."
Twitter critics may be hearing from Freedman's group, as the latter promised to "reach out to people we've heard from and listen and learn from their feedback."
A "new direction" is hoped for, Freedman said in the statement. He did not respond to a Medscape Medical News request for comment.
The 'Be Bold, Be Bald!' campaign has been criticized in the past.
In 2015, the popular breast cancer blog Nancy's Point featured a post from Nancy, who has been treated for breast cancer with chemotherapy and lost her hair (and does not use her last name).
The blog post observed that the swim cap fundraising campaign, which is for all cancers, takes place in October of every year — breast cancer awareness month. "Pink has clout," writes Nancy, suggesting that the campaign was a case of jumping on the bandwagon.
"I'm just not sure how wearing a bald cap shows support for a person who is really bald. It seems gimmicky. Fake baldness. Fake support," she says.
She then makes an incisive observation: "The very premise behind this campaign makes an inaccurate assumption. After all, not all people undergoing cancer treatment experience baldness."
A person with cancer "can look completely healthy and have a full head of hair and yet be very sick," she added.
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Cite this: Patients' Fury Shuts Down 'Be Bold, Be Bald!' Cancer Charity - Medscape - Nov 18, 2021.