Interview and text by Sarah Harding, BCA Development Manager
Editor’s note: Breast Cancer Action has been a powerful organization for 20 years because of women like Jo McCartan, a traditional stay-at-home housewife turned activist who was not afraid to ask the hard questions and educate others. BCA was founded on and continues to thrive because of the transformative work of women like Jo.
Jo McCartan remembers when she was living in upstate New York in 1994. “I was still saying ‘yes, sir,’ to my doctors, to the policeman, to my teacher, ‘yes, sir,’ to all the people who I was taught not to question: I was not advocating for myself,” she says. She considered herself to be a “traditional ’50s housewife” until her early 50s, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
After her surgery, a nurse suggested that she attend a talk by author Sandra Steingraber, who was speaking about her new book, Living Downstream. Jo recalls, “It was my first look at someone who was advocating on behalf of people with breast cancer. I really did not know much about breast cancer, so I signed up to attend an advocacy meeting about [it].”
That advocacy group soon became know as CRAAB, the Capitol Region Action Against Breast Cancer. Jo laughs, “We were crabby, and cancer is the crab (astrological) sign.” CRAAB introduced Jo to advocacy work and Breast Cancer Action. She has been a member of BCA for 10 years.
At 75, Jo embodies what it is to be an advocate against breast cancer. She educates others and asks the hard questions, even when her words fall on deaf ears. “I am more vocal about the environment now, but it is so hard to get people’s attention. We are never going to change it if we do not educate people. You can only do the best you can do. It can be frustrating,” she says. “If I wasn’t informed, I would not have been asking questions or thinking beyond.”
Thinking critically about her world has been the biggest change Jo has experienced. “I see pink ribbon license plates and grocery stores selling something or other with a pink ribbon on it,” she says, “and it just screams at me.” Though it’s easy to write a check and feel good about it, she acknowledges that people often do not know where their money is actually going. “I know because I was like that. I thought I had the world by its tail. [Yet] I was oblivious to it all,” Jo says. “Quite often, the pink ribbon is nothing more than a marketing tool.”
How does BCA differ from other breast cancer groups out there? As Jo puts it, “BCA gets at the causes instead of putting on bandages after the fact. That and they don’t waffle or crumble under pressure.”